TOO little too late as Arsenal had European qualification snatched from their grasp right at the death.

Two-goal Nicolas Pepe thought he had secured the victory they needed to grab qualification for the inaugural Uefa Conference League by the skin of their teeth.

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With Spurs and Everton both losing, Arsenal were suddenly up to seventh place and on course for a 26th consecutive year of European football.

But then news filtered through of Tottenham’s stunning late comeback at Leicester to leave the returning Gunners fans lower than a snake’s belly.

Even though their team has finished five points better off than last season and seemingly moving in the right direction at long last, it still wasn’t enough for Mikel Arteta and his team of underachievers.

And it certainly won’t be enough to prevent Daniel Ek from knocking on the boardroom door as he ramps up his campaign to buy out owner Stan Kroenke. 

The Arsenal Supporters Trust had taken out a giant billboard outside the Emirates main entrance declaring ‘Kroenke Out Fans In.

But plans for a pre-match protest were washed away by a torrential downpour and it was hard to escape the feeling that Silent Stan has some kind of arrangement with the big fella upstairs.

At least Kroenke’s son Josh finally made it across the Atlantic to attend his first match of the season after delivering a training ground pep talk to Arteta and his players on the eve of this game.

And he will have taken some comfort from the fact that it was record signing Pepe who delivered the goals to allow his team to sign off in style.


But that didn’t stop angry fans directing chants of “We want Kroenke Out” towards the directors’ box at the final whistle.

Now those supporters will have to put their passports away for another year after their dreams of Thursday nights in far-flung corners of eastern Europe were flattened.

Only Manchester City and Manchester United have taken more points than Arsenal since Christmas.

And that will only increase Arteta’s sense of frustration after this fifth straight Premier League victory.

Yet they were made to work for the win by a Brighton side who made it clear they were not going to roll over and hand Arsenal the victory they needed to apply pressure to the teams immediately above them in the table.

Graham Potter’s men arrived at the Emirates on the back of an impressive 3-2 midweek win against Champions Manchester City.

And the confidence with which they played their way out from the back belied a team who have spent most of the season on the edge of the relegation zone.

Their gigantic back four were happy to restrict Arsenal to long-range efforts, with both Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka trying their luck from distance early on.

And the industrious Yves Bissouma was clearly looking to make an impression after being linked with a big-money summer move to the Emirates.

But as news that Spurs and Everton were both losing spread around the stadium, so did the anxiety levels at Arsenal’s inability to force a breakthrough. 

Partey forced Robert Sanchez into a first meaningful shot of the afternoon with a 27th minute curler which was turned over without too much fuss by the French keeper.

Rob Holding was convinced he had fired Arsenal ahead when he forced Martin Odegaard’s 31st minute corner over the line from close range.

But eagle-eyed linesman Marc Perry spotted that Holding had strayed inches ahead of Brighton’s last defender when he latched onto Partey’s flick.

And Arsenal were out of luck again shortly before the break when Gabriel’s looping header came back off the bar with Sanchez struggling to make his ground.

It was beginning to look like yet another of those days for the Gunners as they struggled to find a way past the visitors’ stubborn rearguard action.

They had not forgotten the 1-1 draw in their final home game of the 2018-19 season against the same opponents which ultimately resulted in them losing fourth place to Spurs by one point.

And the prospect of history repeating itself was too much for some fans to bear at the end of such a season to forget.

But those fears were banished by Pepe’s 49th minute breakthrough goal and toothless Brighton were never going to come back after that.

Xkaha’s pass was driven low and hard into the danger zone by Calum Chambers and Pepe was allowed far too much time and space to control the ball before slamming home his 15th goal of the season.

And the £72million Ivorian international was not finished there and with Brighton rapidly running out of steam he cut past Lewis Dunk to roll a precise low shot inside the far post.

Just like Arsenal, Pepe is finally starting to come good after the best part of two seasons struggling to convince.

What a pity it has come so late in the day.

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