When Arsenal needed it most, they knew who to turn to.
When they needed someone to drag them out of a hole and into the Champions League, they turned to one man.
Not Robin van Persie; nor Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott or any of the other usual candidates.
Instead, they owe their participation in Europe’s premier competition to a Hungarian who was making his first Premier League appearance of the season — West Brom goalkeeper Marton Fulop.
You normally have to perform splendidly over a long period of time to become a club legend; Fulop has achieved that status at Arsenal without ever having appeared for them.
His was a performances of staggering ineptitude, yet it was could shape Arsenal’s future. If they had lost this game then they would have had an agonising wait to see if Bayern Munich could defeat Chelsea in the Champions League final, therefore ensuring fourth place does indeed grant access to Europe’s premier competition.
Now, that ‘reward’ for coming fourth belongs to Tottenham.
For Arsenal, the realistic possibility is that they can now keep Robin van Persie; that they can strengthen; that they can move on from a season of unprecedented upheaval that encompassed their worst start to a season for 58 years, the sale of two of their best players but, astonishingly, ends with them one place higher than this time last year.
Lukasz Podolski is on his way, and the likes of Yann M’Vila and Jan Vertonghen could now follow. The difference between third and fourth could, this season, be the difference between Arsenal becoming a side only good enough for mid-table and one that can compete at the top.
Forget, for a moment, the goings-on at the Etihad. Whether Manchester City had completed their act of escapology or not, they were always going to win the title, sooner or later. Arsenal, on the other hand, stood on a precipice. Thanks in large part to Fulop, they have stepped back from the cavernous drop; the future is brighter.
They will also hope the future is orange, too. Van Persie did not equal Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo’s joint record of 31 Premier League goals in a 38-game season, but a tally of 37 in all competitions demonstrates why keeping him is now a necessity if Arsenal are to show any signs of intent ahead of next season. The captain lingered over his farewell to the fans, yet how much can be read into that is open to question.
For West Brom, there is uncertainty. Roy Hodgson gave an emotional speech after the game — this was his last at the club before becoming England manager. Yet the foundations are in place here for the next manager to take the club to the next level.
In Shane Long, who was outstanding, Youssef Mulumbu and Jonas Olsson, there is a base to ensure there’s a decent side at The Hawthorns.
And it had appeared they were going to sign off with a victory once they had recovered from the shock of conceding an early goal, Benayoun tapping home after robbing Fulop, who inexplicably waited too long for the ball to enter his penalty area.
Long scored first, finding the bottom corner after a fine pass by James Morrison split the Arsenal defence far too easily. Four minutes later Graham Dorrans profited from more poor defensive play, finding the same corner as Long after Laurent Koscielny and Carl Jenkinson stood off him.
Arsenal came again, Andre Santos shooting home from outside the area, although Fulop should have done better after getting a hand to the ball.
Ten minutes into the second half and Fulop sealed his standing with Arsenal’s fans, punching a corner back towards his own goal. Koscielny was on hand to accept the gift.
Arsenal were unsure whether to stick or twist, and in the end did neither. Keith Andrews forced Szczesny into a smart save, before one last moment of drama as Billy Jones strode through. Finally, at the last possible second, Kieran Gibbs threw himself in the way to block and bring to an end an astonishing season in which, despite all their best efforts, ended with Arsenal coming third.
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