Arsenal are back in Europe - now to seal a dream UCL return

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Match statistics: West Ham 1-2 Arsenal

Whatever happens over the next four games, Arsenal can get their passports out next season.

The most important aspect of Sunday’s 2-1 win against West Ham at the London Stadium was that it took them back above Tottenham and into the Premier League’s top four.

But what it also did was ensure that Mikel Arteta’s side will finish no lower than sixth, guaranteeing them Europa League football at the very least for 2022-23.

That would have been the aim for Arsenal when they kicked off their campaign back in August, but they will now see that as the bare minimum as they approach the finish line with Champions League qualification very much in their own hands.

They went into Sunday’s game knowing Spurs had moved back above them into fourth thanks to their 3-1 win over Leicester City earlier in the afternoon.

It was a result that ramped up the pressure on Arteta’s side, but goals from centre-backs Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhaes were enough to give them the victory they needed to restore their two-point advantage with four games remaining.

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In truth, it was an ugly performance from the Gunners, who made a catalogue of mistakes throughout an error-strewn contest.

But that will not worry Arteta in the slightest at this stage of the season.

Wins are all that matter now, and Arsenal got exactly what they came for in east London to back up their recent victories over Chelsea and Manchester United.

There is no doubt that they will have to raise their game over the final four matches to ensure they will be back dining at Europe’s top table next season, especially when they play Spurs in just under a fortnight.

But with Tottenham facing title chasing Liverpool at Anfield next weekend and Arsenal at home to relegation-threatened Leeds United, Arteta’s side could quite conceivably take a five-point advantage into that North London derby.

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That is why a win against West Ham was so crucial. Given what was at stake, however, Arsenal were strangely flat in the first half.

They would have been well aware of Spurs’ result, yet there was very little urgency during an opening 45 minutes which was littered with errors for both teams.

The best chance in the opening half hour fell to West Ham, but Holding was on hand to block Manuel Lanzini’s shot at the back post.

Arsenal had been struggling to create anything of note at the other end until some sloppy defending gave Eddie Nketiah a chance to run at goal.

Lukas Fabianksi did well to save the striker's effort, but Holding rose highest to head the resulting corner into the far corner to open the scoring after 38 minutes.

The lead did not last long, however, with Jardon Bowen drawing West Ham level on the stroke of half-time after he had been picked out by Vladimir Coufal.

It was a goal in keeping with Arsenal’s poor performance, with Coufal given far too much time by Nuno Tavares to find Bowen, who was then able to take a touch before drilling a deflected effort into the bottom corner.

Arteta must have been furious at half-time and his side did start the second half with more urgency, regaining their lead on 54 minutes through Gabriel’s header.

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The Brazilian centre-back has chipped in with some valuable goals this season, and he was once again on hand to turn in his fourth of the campaign when he nodded in Gabriel Martinelli’s cross at the back post.

It was a goal that turned out to be the winner, with a tired looking West Ham never really looking like grabbing an equaliser as they prepare for their own Europa League semi-final second leg on Thursday.

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Instead, Arsenal could have made things more comfortable late on, with Nketiah failing to take advantage of two good chances, but the misses did not prove costly.

This was an afternoon that was all about the result, and Arsenal got exactly what they wanted. After a season in the European wilderness, Arteta’s side can now officially prepare for trips around the continent ahead of next season.

What competition they are playing in, however, is still very much up in the air.

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