Wenger salutes players as Arsenal finish third

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger paid tribute to his players after they qualified for the Champions League once again despite a disastrous start to the campaign.

The Gunners' 3-2 victory at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday secured third place as they finished a point and a place ahead of North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur to guarantee entry to Europe's elite competition next season.

That was something of an achievement for Wenger's team, who lost four of their first seven Premier League matches, including an 8-2 humiliation at Manchester United, and the Frenchman insisted his players deserve credit for turning their fortunes around.

"If you look at the season as a whole, in the last 16 league games we have lost only twice," said Wenger, who said Robin van Persie's lingering applause towards the away fans afterwards was a "positive sign" he will still be at the Emirates Stadium next season.

"We have created a fantastic run. In the end we finished with 70 points. That is respectable.

"We were 17th in the league in September and after the first seven games we had lost four of them. It's very difficult to imagine you can finish third. But we have had an exceptional run after our Champions League exit.

"I'm proud of the season. The unity and solidarity inside the club has been tested and we didn't show any weakness. In the end, we came back. It's a good lesson for everyone.

"I cannot say the season has been a failure. We have qualified for the 15th time. Only three clubs have done that in Europe. That means it's not as easy as it looks."

Defeat was a disappointing end to a superb 16-month spell with the Baggies for outgoing head coach Roy Hodgson, in his final game before taking on the England job on a permanent basis.

He addressed the Hawthorns crowd after the match to express his gratitude.

"I am touched by the reception. It is a fantastic football club of great tradition and support," Hodgson said.

"You deserve another year in the Premier League. Everyone has been fantastic and I would not have been England manager if it was not for the contribution of everyone at this club."

Mistakes from Baggies understudy goalkeeper Marton Fulop, only in the side because of a groin injury to Ben Foster, gifted the Gunners their first and third goals from Yossi Benayoun and Laurent Koscielny.

The hosts had responded with strikes from Shane Long and Graham Dorrans, only for Andre Santos to level matters before Koscielny clinched the points early in the second half.

Baggies assistant manager Keith Downing said: "When you are playing a side of quality you cannot afford to give those types of goals away.

"It left us with a mountain to climb. Marton is devastated. He sets high standards and he knows one or two of the goals were down to him."

Meanwhile, Foster confirmed afterwards that he will not be ending his international exile to link up with Hodgson at Euro 2012.

"I've always said all along my best form has been since I retired from England and I feel my body gets a good rest, and I feel it needs that rest as well," Foster said.

"Not only that, the fact I've got a young family now, and the family is very big with me. I've got a three- and a four-year-old and they do take up a lot of my time.

"I make no secret, I miss them when I'm away with England. For me, I prefer to spend that time with the family than being away from them.

"Roy tried hard to persuade me. I get on with him so well and he is a fantastic manager. You learn so much off him.

"I know he will do a fantastic job for England but he totally understood my reasons why and was very respectful of that and understood my decision and my way of thinking."

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