London: Arsenal showed they can thrive without axed star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the Gunners moved into fourth place in the Premier League with a 2-0 win against West Ham, while the top-flight’s coronavirus crisis deepened on Wednesday.
Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe netted in the second half of a fiery London derby at the Emirates Stadium that saw West Ham’s Vladimir Coufal sent off.
Arsenal are one point above fifth-placed West Ham after a second successive victory eased the drama surrounding Mikel Arteta’s decision to strip Gabon forward Aubameyang of the club captaincy.
Arteta’s side are in the top four at this stage of a season for the first time in two-and-a-half years.
It is a remarkable reversal of fortune after Arsenal lost their opening three league games for the first time in 67 years.
Calls for Arteta to be sacked were widespread after an embarrassing 5-0 thrashing at Manchester City in August, but the Spaniard has steadied the ship impressively.
Aubameyang was absent from the squad after being removed from the captaincy due to a disciplinary breach on Tuesday.
He returned late and missed training last week after travelling to France to see his ill mother.
It was not Aubameyang’s first transgression, having previously been dropped for the north London derby against Tottenham in March after what was described as a breach of the club’s pre-match protocol.
Aubameyang has also performed poorly since signing a lucrative new contract in September 2020.
Martinelli broke West Ham’s resistence in the 48th minute when the Brazilian ran onto Alexandre Lacazette’s defence-splitting pass and stroked a fine finish into the far corner for his second goal this term.
West Ham were reduced to 10 men in the 66th minute after Coufal’s tackle on stand-in skipper Lacazette conceded a penalty and earned the defender a second yellow card.
Lukasz Fabianski plunged to his left to save Lacazette’s spot-kick, but Smith Rowe capped Arsenal’s dominant display when he finished a flowing move with a clinical strike from the edge of the area in the 87th minute.
While Arsenal were hit by the coronavirus before their opening game of the season at Brentford, they have so far avoided the recent positive test plunging the league into turmoil.
Watford’s match at Burnley was postponed less than three hours before kick-off on Wednesday after “an ongoing Covid outbreak” left the Hornets with insufficent players to fulfil the fixture.
It was the third Premier League game to be postponed due to Covid in four days as the new Omicron variant causes havoc in England’s top-flight.
Tottenham’s trip to Brighton last Sunday was called off due to an outbreak at the north London club, while Manchester United’s match at Brentford on Tuesday was cancelled after the Old Trafford club’s positive tests.
United, Tottenham, Brighton, Leicester, Norwich and Aston Villa had already been hit by the virus over the last week.
The Premier League announced a record 42 positive tests across two testing cycles last week.
Top-flight chiefs have responded to the growing number of positive cases by introducing strict virus protocols, including players and staff taking a lateral flow test every time they enter their club’s training ground.
Also on Wednesday, Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers said the Premier League had rejected an appeal from both clubs to postpone their match against Tottenham on Thursday.
Leicester are currently without nine players because of Covid-related issues and injuries.
Brighton boss Graham Potter had dealt with several Covid cases in his squad this week and his problems mounted as Wolves won 1-0 at the Amex Stadium.
Potter’s side are without a win in 12 games in all competitions after Romain Saiss volleyed home in first half stoppage-time.
Jordan Ayew ended his 47-game goal drought to give Crystal Palace a 2-2 draw against Southampton at Selhurst Park.