10 May 2006

Arsenal 4-2 Wigan; West Ham 2-1 Tottenham

I didn't want to write about the matches on Sunday; I was more interested in just enjoying the win. By now you're well aware of the details of Arsenal's win and Tottenham's loss, so I won't go into depth on that. Instead here are the 'take a step back' thoughts about what happened.

Obviously the Spurs illness outbreak was the major controversy. Tottenham are keeping that alive, requesting that the match be replayed. This is of course complete foolishness. If they hadn't been able to field a team, then of course the situation were different. But as it happened, Spurs had 11 on the field and 5 on the bench. They played a full 90 and lost. Now I suppose my feelings on this would change if it were proven that the illnesses were the result of a criminal action. But barring that, there's absolutely no way that the FA will grant this request; otherwise they open themselves to all kinds of replay requests whenever results don't go their way.

The illness story makes discussion of the match almost superfluous; any Spurs failing can be blamed on their sick players. Still, West Ham did their part; the team fought hard from the first whistle. I'm curious where they drew their motivation; Arsenal have suffered in similar situations this year. Still, all credit to the Hammers for doing Arsenal a favor. Gunner fans will buy a few drinks for Hammers fans this week, I'm sure.

And what about that Arsenal match? When the schedule came out in August, Wigan were supposed to be prime candidates for relegation. Instead the Latics have proven that they belong in the Premiership, and an Arsenal win was certainly not inevitable. And yet, every Arsenal fan had to feel confident that the team would turn in a top-drawer performance for the final match at Highbury. When Robert Pires scored on 8', it seemed the party had begun; news of an early West Ham goal added to the festival.

But Wigan didn't accept the invitation. Instead, they drew level on some dodgy defending and passive goalkeeping, and then took the lead on more of the same. The Gunners' concentration was lacking and Wigan took advantage.

But the Gunners were always going to win this match, and of course Thierry Henry provided the key spark. The first goal was the key. He perfectly timed his run to Pires' pass, and coldly beat Wigan keeper Pollitt. That goal, coming just two minutes after Wigan took the lead, made all the difference in the match. There was plenty more drama in the match -- Uriah Rennie's inconsistent officiating, Wigan's bouts of second-half pressure, the penalty call and red card -- but in the end the Arsenal win seemed the correct conclusion, both for the play of the teams and for the mood of the day.

And what a mood it was. The final match at Highbury was an historic occasion and the club did themselves proud with the festivities. The souvenier t-shirts in alternate red and white made for a beautiful stadium. And the Wigan fans weren't left out; they were given blue shirts for the occasion, truly a class act by the club. All 38,359 fans came prepared to send Highbury off in style, and the songs ringing through the stadium put paid to the "Highbury library" image. The atmosphere was electric, even when Wigan took the lead, and the forthcoming Arsenal (and West Ham) goals only added to it. When Henry completed his hat-trick and bent to kiss the Highbury turf, the day was complete; the subsequent good news and ceremonies only underlned the perfection of the day.

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