Premier League - Arsenal held by Norwich in thriller
Yossi Benayoun gave the hosts a second-minute lead with a precise finish from the edge of the box, but Arsene Wenger’s 900th match in charge of the Gunners took a turn for the worse as Wes Hoolahan levelled after a poor mistake from Wojciech Szczesny and Grant Holt put the visitors in front courtesy of a deflected shot.
Both sides piled forward fearlessly in what was a frenetic second half, but two clinical strikes from Robin van Persie again swung the momentum back the way of the hosts, before substitute Steve Morison sent the travelling supporters wild with an equaliser five minutes from time as Arsenal’s hopes of securing a Champions League spot suffered a blow.
And there was worse news to follow for the Gunners as full-back Bacary Sagna, who went off in the first half injured, was revealed to have broken his fibula, an injury which will cost him his chance of representing France at Euro 2012.
Arsenal had named an unchanged starting XI as Van Persie, who earlier this week collected his FWA Footballer of the Year award, led the Gunners attack, while South Korea forward Park Ju-Young replaced injured Abou Diaby on the bench. Norwich, who are safe from the threat of relegation, made several changes from the side beaten 3-0 at home to Liverpool, with Simon Lappin coming into the defence and Simeon Jackson partnering Holt in attack.
Arsenal had won each of their last four games against Norwich City, and the hosts were in front in next to no time as Benayoun was afforded ample space on the left edge of the penalty area and the midfielder produced an exquisite finish to pick out the far corner of the net and give his side the perfect start.
But in the 12th minute Szczesny endured some horrible moments, first getting himself in a real mess as he charged off his line, missing his punch, and left relieved to see Holt head over the crossbar from Hoolahan’s pinpoint cross.
But there was no reprieve for the Arsenal goalkeeper after his second mistake in a matter of seconds, as Kyle Naughton’s fine cross was met by Hoolahan, with Szczesny inexplicably allowing the midfielder’s tame shot to squirm through his grasp at the near post as the visitors levelled.
Norwich then grabbed a shock lead in the 27th minute as a swift and incisive counter-attack saw Jackson and Hoolahan combine to good effect, before Holt’s shot from the edge of the box took a vicious deflection off Gibbs and the ball looped over Szczesny's head and nestled in the back of the net.
Wenger’s frustration was compounded minutes later as he made an enforced change just after the half hour mark after Sagna fell awkwardly with his knee giving way, and the right back had to be stretchered off with Francis Coquelin coming on in his place.
Arsenal should have drawn level minutes later after Gervinho powered his way to the left byline and cut the ball back, but the onrushing Gibbs was profligate, side-footing the ball wide from close range without any real conviction.
At times, Arsenal’s frustrations threatened to boil over. Benayoun petulantly kicked out at Lappin while on the ground, but referee Anthony Taylor appeared unsighted; as indeed the official was when Coquelin slid in recklessly and hauled down Jackson inside the Arsenal box, with replays showing that he did not get any of the ball. Paul Lambert’s displeasure was very evident.
Wenger sent out his players very early for the restart, and Van Persie almost inadvertently found Benayoun with a low shot which zipped across the six-yard box as the midfielder lunged agonisingly short of converting from close range. But Norwich had a clear-cut opportunity of their own just seconds later as Jackson was sent through on goal by a defence-splitting pass from Russell Martin, only for the forward to scuff a tame shot straight at a relieved Szczesny.
Arsenal have recovered more points from losing positions than any other Premier League side this season, and their elusive second goal finally arrived in the 72nd minute, courtesy of their ever-reliable captain: substitute Marouane Chamakh had a shot blocked, before Song showed incredible vision to pick out Van Persie with a dinked through ball, and he duly slammed the ball home with an emphatic finish.
The Canaries, who have conceded 14 goals in their last four league games, continued to press forward as did Arsenal with reckless abandon with substitutes Morison and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both provided real impact for their respective sides.
But it was Van Persie who pounced once more to put his side in front with 10 minutes remaining, with a clinical finish as the ball broke loose to him inside the penalty area following a through ball from Rosicky. Arsenal were back in front, 78 minutes after they had initially taken the lead.
Norwich were not finished, however, and Jonny Howson slid a perfectly-weighted through ball into the path of Morison, who looked up and slammed a stunning finish beyond Szczesny and into the far corner of the net to silence the home fans.
Further drama followed as Arsenal had their vociferous appeals for a last-minute penalty waved away by referee Taylor after Naughton appeared to bundle over Van Persie as the forward attempted to turn home a delivery into the six-yard box, and the Arsenal skipper was left to lament the contact while sat in the back of the net.
Arsenal have now gone four Premier League games without a win for the first time since a winless streak in January/February, and Wenger and his players were left to rue dropping two more points in their bid to secure a Champions League place with rivals Tottenham and Newcastle now able to capitalise.