Arsenal closed in on another season of Champions League football with a 1-0 win over strugglers Norwich City in the Premier League on Saturday but it was another uncomfortable evening for manager Arsene Wenger amid protests from fans.
Arsenal moved into third place, thanks to a Danny Welbeck goal but it did not stop discontent inside and outside the Emirates Stadium from supporters grumbling about perceived under-achievement in Wenger’s long reign.
Yet the Gunners’ fans cannot have been as miserable as supporters of visiting Norwich, whose side were plunged into even deeper trouble amid the dog-fight at the foot of the table.
They were the only one of the three relegation candidates to endure a pointless afternoon, with Newcastle United beating Crystal Palace 1-0 and Sunderland rescuing a point with a last-gasp penalty from Jermain Defoe in a 1-1 draw at Stoke City.
At Arsenal, there was division between supporters, some of whom held up posters with the message ‘Time for a change’, after 12 minutes and 12 minutes from time, to mark the dozen years that they have failed to win the league.
Yet others sang “There’s only one Arsene Wenger” before Welbeck, introduced as a second-half substitute, scored within four minutes to earn Arsenal a key victory.
“We were warned about the protesters,” Wenger said. “You want to make the fans happy. I’m sorry if I don’t achieve it. I’m irritated and frustrated if I cannot keep people happy.”
“I have respect for the club and gave so much for the club. I want to make people happy.”
The win puts Arsenal third in the table, three points clear of Manchester City, who will leapfrog them on goal difference if they win at Southampton on Sunday. City entertain Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium next weekend.
With Leicester City poised to clinch the title on Sunday if they beat Manchester United, most drama was centred on the bottom of the table where two from Newcastle United, Sunderland and Norwich will join doomed Aston Villa in the championship.
Newcastle were leading Palace 1-0 at home through Andros Townsend’s goal when their former player, Yohan Cabaye’s spot kick was saved by Karl Darlow and the home side had to hang on for the win that hoisted them out of the bottom three.
Sunderland were seconds away from defeat at Stoke City when Defoe kept his cool to tuck away a 93rd-minute penalty that earned a potentially huge point in a 1-1 draw.
Norwich’s loss in the day’s late game now leaves them second-bottom, a point behind Sunderland and two adrift of Newcastle, who have played one game more.
Spaniard Rafa Benitez’s arrival at Newcastle has spurred hopes of a great escape and with confidence soaring and a match against hapless Villa next week, it now looks possible.
“This was massive for us, we needed to win,” Benitez said. “If that penalty save keeps us up Darlow will be a hero for sure.”
Sunderland had trailed to Marko Arnautovic’s strike at Stoke but kept plugging away and were offered a lifeline in stoppage time when Defoe was fouled by Geoff Cameron and the former England striker nervelessly converted his spot kick.
“It is a very precious point and in the end the referee was brave and good enough to make the right decision for us for the penalty,” Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce said.
West Ham United captain Mark Noble scored twice as they won 3-0 at West Bromwich Albion to move above Manchester United into fifth place on goal difference with 59 points -- their best haul in the Premier League era.
Everton recorded a first win in eight league games, 2-1 at home to Bournemouth, although the home fans still displayed banners calling for manager Roberto Martinez to be sacked.
Watford staged a late comeback to win 3-2 against Aston Villa, whose 11th straight league defeat equalled a club record set in 1963.