A swashbuckling display from Laurent Koscielny earned Arsenal a gritty win in the North East to earn his club a valuable Champions League place next season. The French defender weighed in with crucial contributions at both ends of the pitch to decide this uneventful but nervy encounter.
It enabled Wenger to keep up his remarkable record of qualifying for the tournament despite many people (including myself) thinking it was surely beyond him this time. A terrible season had seemed in terminal decline only 10 weeks ago as we sat seven points behind Spurs after they’d exposed our schoolboy defending at White Hart Lane. But that defeat brought about a belated rethink of our defensive approach and eight wins and two draws later we overhauled the old enemy to consign them to the Europa League once again.
This game was a perfect microcosm of the ‘new’ Arsenal — comfortable at the back with rare moments of anxiety whilst doing just enough going forward to nick a win. It was by no means a performance to drool over, but like many since we lost to Spurs it was a professional, disciplined display that got the job done.
Newcastle had started off quite brightly and had the best chance of the first half when Cisse swivelled smartly to fire a cut-back just over the bar. Arsenal had plenty of possession but weren’t creating much of note and would’ve been relieved to hear that Spurs were also drawing 0-0 as they headed in at the break.Koscielny got the second half off to a perfect start when he hooked home a Podolski header following Walcott’s free kick and despite some lively running from Ben Arfa, the home side never seriously threatened Szczesny. Nothing else of note happened as the game petered towards a low key conclusion. In fact the most entertaining action came at the Lane where thousands of Spurs fans excitedly celebrated a Newcastle equaliser that hadn’t happened — how I laughed!
However, I wasn’t laughing when Bale smacked in another sensational winner in the 90th minute and Arsenal had four tense minutes of stoppage time to negotiate. Walcott fluffed a great chance to make the game safe on the break when he hit the post, but Newcastle lacked genuine quality and just couldn’t fashion a decent chance thanks to the excellence of Koscielny and Mertesacker and some good pressure from a hardworking team determined to finish fourth.
The final whistle brought relief for the traveling Gooners and players, who proceeded to celebrate on the pitch as if they’d finally won a trophy. If that wasn’t a perfect illustration of how standards have fallen at this club then I don’t know what is.
So credit is due to Wenger for overseeing an incredible turnaround and focusing his players for those final 10 matches. It shouldn’t mean the often unimpressive first 28 matches are forgotten (or the disappointing cup campaigns) but now is not the time to discuss that. I’ll be reviewing the season as a whole in another article once the dust has settled.
Right now it’s time to breathe a huge sigh of relief, salute the players and staff for rescuing our place at Europe’s top table and smile smugly at any Spurs fans we may meet over the summer.