Sunday, May 19, 2013
Gunners to grace top table again
Kristan Heneage, St James' Park
What could have been the start of a new chapter for Tottenham Hotspur will instead serve as a footnote in the history of Arsenal football club.
The Gunners were, for the third time in seven years, involved in an end-of-season duel with their North London rivals for Champions League football. And, for the third time, they came out victorious.
As well as the experience of previous battles, they took to the field at St James' Park knowing they had conceded just four goals away from home against sides in the lower half of the Premier League table, and that their record against those sides was a point better than Tottenham's.
• Mangan: Arsenal do just enough, now must improve
• Duffy: Newcastle fans thankful it's all over
Such confidence going into the game showed itself on the pitch. The only hint of anxiety was shown in Arsene Wenger's decision to rush Mikael Arteta back from a calf strain - the Spanish midfielder lasting less than half an hour. But their belief meandered into complacency as clear chances became difficult to fashion before half-time.
But with Newcastle not as clinical as Spurs might have hoped, it seemed more a case of when, rather than if, Arsenal would score the goal that would definitely see them avoid Thursday night jaunts round Europe next season.
And yet despite this success, another season has gone by without them winning the trophy they desperately desire and the focus will once again turn to Arsenal's shiny elephant in the room. Wenger maintains that, for Arsenal, fourth place is a trophy - and his players' efforts suggested he wasn't being flippant.
Mikel Arteta's anxious look as he asked the fourth official: "How long left?" was followed by those on the Arsenal bench spilling onto the pitch at full time. Hugs, smiles and celebrations were the precursor to the entire squad bowing in front of the ravelling support as the players looked to milk their moment.
"We had some big lows," Wenger said afterwards, citing defeats to Blackburn Rovers, Bradford City and Bayern Munich, all of which saw them eliminated from the season's cup competitions. But the Frenchman pinpointed Arsenal's Champions League second-leg victory at the Allianz Arena as the campaign's turning point - and since February 1, they have taken more points than anyone in the league, notably Tottenham, who held a seven-point advantage over them at one stage.
The Gunners' form during that spell has been that of champions, but they still seem some distance from achieving such a feat. Benefiting from a meek Newcastle side dealing with far deeper-rooted problems, Arsenal had only to withstand a brief smattering of pressure during the first half, Papiss Cisse firing the Magpies' best chance over the bar.
Lacking in players of world-class quality, Wenger was coy on his intentions for summer transfers, preferring to reiterate previous lamentations of the lack of value for money in the market at the moment.
But Wenger must know that successes can remain. Santi Cazorla holds the potential to be an important player for Arsenal, but his quality must be supplemented by those around him. With their squad unlikely to tempt many rivals, there is a strong chance that Arsenal will escape the summer without losing a marquee player, as they have done in previous summers.
That adds an extra incentive to their dealings. In addition, Tottenham have never seemed stronger than now in the Premier League era and, with Chelsea set for a galvanizing summer, Wenger may need to rethink his tight grip on the club's purse strings.
In contrast, Newcastle's issues will be unaffected by money. Unable to celebrate a goal on Sunday, fans chose instead to use Steve Harper's final appearance as a reason for cheering. As he made his final appearance after 20 years, the 37th minute was cleared to remember a loyal servant and one of their own.
As he struggled to hold back the tears, he was granted a final big save when Lukas Podolski raced through one on one. As Harper smothered the shot, a hearty roar went up, the linesman's flag for offside inconsequential as the veteran showed there is still life in his gloves.
But he was denied a clean sheet on his final appearance as a five-minute period after half time gave Arsenal the buffer they needed. Their winner was created by a Theo Walcott free-kick and a Podolski header, and Laurent Koscielny volleyed home.
But for all the efforts of the home support to rouse their failing charges, this was a docile performance. As Jonas Gutierrez did his best to clap his way through another 90 minutes, the faces of Newcastle's players told the greatest story.
They were dull for long periods and lacking invention, with Hatem Ben Arfa bearing the burden of their creative hopes. When his mazy runs work, they're as delightful as they are unbelievable. But they did not against a trio of Arsenal defenders.
"I don't really want to go into that way of thinking," Newcastle boss Alan Pardew said as he attempted to deflect questions about whether he had let the fans down this season. Falling into the past excuses of blaming the Europa League and those who were absent through injury on Sunday, his attempts at mitigation are wearing thin with supporters whose loyalty to the cause has been tested significantly this season.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Laurent Koscielny. On a day when the game seemed as though it would be bereft of goals, Koscielny provided the breakthrough. Able to deal with the dual threat of Cisse and Ben Arfa, the former Lorient defender could be an important building-block in Arsenal's defensive future.
ARSENAL VERDICT As the summer approaches, important decisions must be made on the likes of Aaron Ramsey and those on the fringes of the squad. With the Welshman still looking short of the quality required at the Emirates, his time with the club may be coming to an end.
NEWCASTLE VERDICT: In what could also prove to be Fabricio Coloccini's last game for Newcastle, the defender was outstanding. Personal rather than professional reasons are behind his desire to return home to Argentina, but that doesn't change the fact that he will leave a void. Personifying calm, the 31-year-old united a back line that has looked disjointed without him in recent home games.