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VIDEO Hightlights and report: Arsenal take third after classy win over Fulham


By Jonny Payne.

Arsenal ensured Champions League football would be returning to the Emirates next season with a classy 4-0 win over an under-strength Fulham side on Sunday. The Gunners had looked destined for a top-three finish since March, but after falling out of the title race, they then faltered, losing matches at Tottenham, Wigan and Blackburn. With North London rivals Tottenham hot on their heels, Arsenal needed a point in their final game of the season to secure a top-three finish.

Luckily for Arsenal they came up against a team with all eyes on Wednesday’s Europa League final with Atletico Madrid. Fulham were far from full strength with the likes of Bobby Zamora, Brede Hangeland and Damien Duff all rested ahead of their historic European game, but Roy Hodgson still included Manchester United-bound Chris Smalling and the American forward Clint Dempsey.

Far from facing a nervous wait for third spot, the Gunners faithful could settle comfortably in their padded seats within just 40 minutes. Goals from Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie and a Chris Baird own-goal put the result beyond doubt – even taking into account Arsenal’s recent collapses.

Substitute Carlos Vela added a cheeky third with just over fifteen minutes remaining, and with the news that Tottenham had lost to lowly Burnley after conceding a two-goal advantage, the season ended with beaming smiles.

Arsene Wenger named his strongest possible line-up in the knowledge that his side needed to take something from the game. Lukasz Fabianski continued in goal, while Gael Clichy returned at left-back. Andrey Arshavin was also restored to the starting line-up after recovering from injury, while Robin van Persie led the line as captain in the absence of Nicklas Bendtner.

Arsenal started brightly, with Emmanuel Eboue and Samir Nasri looking to orchestrate proceedings from midfield and Robin van Persie showing once again how he has been sorely missed this season, linking up well with Arshavin and Theo Walcott.

It was a Fulham player who was to have a hand in the first goal however, as the Cottagers ‘keeper Mark Schwarzer took a heavy touch from a back-pass. Arshavin capitalised and beat the Australian to the byline. He jinked one way, and then the other, leaving Schwarzer on his back and the little Russian lashed the ball into the near side of the net despite the best effort of two visiting defenders.

It was soon two-nil. A good pass by Bacary Sagna slipped Walcott clear of the defence on the right and the Englishman squared the ball unselfishly for the unmarked van Persie. Schwarzer deflected the Dutchman’s first effort onto the bar but the mercurial forward got to the rebound first to tap into the net.

It was looking all too easy for Arsenal, but with the news that Tottenham were winning, it was a reminder for Arsenal players to remain focused and not let the complacency seen in recent matches creep in.

Fulham rarely looked likely to threaten, in fact it was Arsenal’s ‘keeper Fabianski who would cause more havoc within his own defence than Fulham’s attack. The Pole seemed to be on a kamikaze mission to convince his manager of his frailties once again as he pawed at a number of straightforward crosses – Wenger must have been checking just how much money he has in his wallet.

Eight minutes before the interval, Arsenal banished all doubts of a comeback. After Walcott had an effort ruled out for offside, the winger again burst down the right, this time his cross was cleverly flicked on by the flamboyant Eboue towards van Persie. Chris Baird got there first, but the former Southampton man’s touch took the ball into his own net – it would have been an accomplished finish had he been wearing red and white.

Arsenal were dominating a match without really getting into second gear and third place was now well and truly secured. Walcott could have scored the goal his performance deserved before half-time but he dragged his shot wide of the post when well placed.

The second half continued in much the same vain, with Arsenal almost treating the match as an end-of-season warm down. You feel they could have turned on the style even more but the players were content with spraying the ball around, many of those on show were inevitably trying not to pick-up injuries ahead of their countries World Cup squad announcements this week.

Van Persie should have scored his second being denied from six yards by Schwarzer and then from even closer by the post when it seemed almost easier to score.

A fourth was eventually added though, when substitute Vela latched onto a Nasri through-ball, lifting the ball effortlessly over the hapless Schwarzer with a trademark chip.

It certainly was party time, but not exactly how Gunners fans had imagined it a few weeks ago. Arsenal’s players took a lap of honour after the match but they would have looked on in envy as Chelsea lifted the title in the Blue half of London. Next year, next year…

Player Ratings: Fabianski 4, Sagna 7, Campbell 7, Silvestre 7 (Djourou 7), Clichy 8, Eboue 8, Diaby 7, Nasri 7, Arshavin 8 (Vela 7), van Persie 8, Walcott 8 (Lansbury 7).

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