LONDON: Olivier Giroud’s hat-trick inspired Arsenal to a 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa yesterday that, combined with Tottenham’s defeat at Newcastle, ensured they finished the season as Premier League runners-up. Gunners manager Arsene Wenger has endured protests from supporters convinced it is time for a change throughout much of a difficult campaign.
But snatching an unexpected second place finish that maintained Arsenal’s record of finishing above local rivals Tottenham every year since the Frenchman took charge in 1996 will strengthen Wenger’s position heading into the close-season. Wenger had acknowledged the disappointment of failing to challenge for the title by insisting before this game that defeat hurts him more than ever because, at the age of 66, he knows he has only a limited number of seasons in front of him.
Chips Keswick, the Arsenal chairman, also expressed in the match day program his disappointment at the club’s failure to close in on champions Leicester, but despite the feeling of frustration, Wenger’s side still came into this game having already secured another top four finish. Last weekend’s draw at Manchester City meant the manager had guided the club into the Champions League for a 19th successive season.
And for Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere, there was the added incentive of demonstrating to watching Roy Hodgson he is now fully fit, 24 hours before the England coach announces his squad for Euro 2016. Wilshere was making his first start since the final day of the last Premier League season after suffering a leg fracture last August and offered enough signs during his 70-minute appearance to strengthen his claims.
For Villa, already relegated and destined to finish at the bottom of the table after a disastrous season, there was nothing but pride to play for before their focus shifts towards attempting to return from the Championship next season. The opening moments showed just why Villa have found themselves in such a mess with Arsenal taking a fifth minute lead without breaking sweat.
The goal could hardly have been simpler, with Giroud set up by an excellent left wing cross from Nacho Monreal and the striker rising above the visitors’ defense to head past Mark Bunn. The expectation was that Arsenal would go on to build on that opening goal and finish the season in style.
Villa, as they have been for much of the season, were ineffectual, but Wenger’s side struggled to create more chances despite the weakness of the opposition and it was another 20 minutes before the home supporters were stirred into life by news of Newcastle’s opening goal at St James’ Park.
Arsenal dominance was reflected by the fact the visiting supporters celebrated loudly when their team forced a corner midway through the second half after a rare foray forward. But the Gunners continued to frustrate, with Wenger growing increasingly animated on the touchline as his side failed to add to their lead when Mohamed Elneny volleyed over.
It was left to Giroud to calm his side’s nerves in the 78th minute when he got in front of the Villa defense to turn home at the near post from Mesut Ozil’s cross. The France striker then completed his hat-trick two minutes later with a first time finish after an excellent through ball from Hector Bellerin. Mikel Arteta, who along with Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky will leave the club shortly, was the architect of the fourth goal, sending a shot against the bar that bounced into the goal off Bunn. An emotional Arteta left the pitch in tears after a game that added an unexpected gloss to a season marked by frustration at Arsenal’s failure to challenge for the title. – AFP