LONDON, April 30 – A quick-fire goal from substitute Danny Welbeck united squabbling supporters as Arsenal defeated Norwich City 1-0 on Saturday to advance their pursuit of a Premier League top-four finish.
Fans protesting against long-serving Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger were drowned out by supporters backing him before Welbeck’s 59th-minute strike settled proceedings, keeping Norwich in the bottom three.
Arsenal established a provisional eight-point cushion over the teams below the Champions League places, ahead of next weekend’s high-stakes trip to Manchester City, who trail them by three points ahead of their trip to Southampton on Sunday.
In a pre-planned protest at the Emirates Stadium, a smattering of fans held up A4 posters bearing the words “TIME FOR CHANGE” in the 12th minute of the game, in a nod to Arsenal’s 12-year league title drought.
In response thousands of fans chanted “There’s only one Arsene Wenger!”, with some holding aloft placards in support of the under-fire Frenchman, who has been in place since 1996.
However, with Norwich creating the best of the first-half chances, there were boos at the half-time whistle.
Injury forced Wenger to send on Gabriel for centre-back Per Mertesacker early in the second half, but it was his second change that was to prove decisive.
Welbeck replaced Alex Iwobi in the 56th minute, drawing more boos, but less than three minutes later Olivier Giroud nodded Hector Bellerin’s cross into his path and the England striker slashed home the winner.
Norwich finished the day two points from safety, but with a game in hand on fourth-bottom Newcastle, who beat Crystal Palace courtesy of Townsend’s memorable strike and a Karl Darlow penalty save from Yohan Cabaye.
“The victory means a lot. It gives us momentum, confidence and a connection with the fans,” said Benitez, who succeeded Steve McClaren as Newcastle manager last month.
“We still have to play another two games. We will enjoy this weekend because we won and then we will focus on the next one against Aston Villa, which will be a tough one.”
– ‘TIME TO GO ROBERTO’ –
Townsend broke the deadlock in the 58th minute at St James’ Park, the one-time England winger sending a free-kick from wide on the right whistling into the top-left corner.
Twelve minutes later, Cabaye had a chance to equalise, but the France international, who angered Newcastle fans by leaving for Paris Saint-Germain in 2014, saw his penalty brilliantly turned away by Darlow.
Jermain Defoe scored a stoppage-time penalty to rescue a 1-1 draw at Stoke City for Sunderland.
Although Sam Allardyce’s side were left a point behind Newcastle in the bottom three, they, like Norwich, have a game in hand.
“Where would you be without Jermain Defoe? Relegated probably,” said Allardyce after Defoe scored his 17th goal of the season to cancel out Marko Arnautovic’s 50th-minute opener.
“I am going home satisfied it is a point gained rather than two dropped.”
West Ham United captain Mark Noble scored twice for the second game in succession as his side won 3-0 at West Bromwich Albion to replace Manchester United in fifth place, with Cheikhou Kouyate also on target.
Leighton Baines scored the winner as Everton prevailed 2-1 at home to Bournemouth, after Tom Cleverley’s seventh-minute opener for the hosts had been swiftly cancelled out by Marc Pugh’s deflected strike.
But it was an uncomfortable afternoon for Everton manager Roberto Martinez, with protesting supporters paying for a plane trailing the banner “TIME TO GO ROBERTO” to fly over Goodison Park during the game.
Meanwhile, skipper Troy Deeney scored a last-gasp brace as Watford twice came from behind to inflict a 3-2 defeat on already-relegated Aston Villa at Villa Park.
Leaders Leicester City can become England’s first new top-flight title-winners since Nottingham Forest in 1978 if they win at Manchester United on Sunday.
Should they fail to win, they will still be crowned champions on Monday if second-place Tottenham Hotspur cannot better their result when they visit Chelsea.