Newcastle 0 Arsenal 1 match report: Gunners finish fourth thanks to Laurent Koscielny winner
Arsenal express joy at the final whistle
At the final whistle, Arsene Wenger turned towards his bench with both fists in the air and instinctively hugged the nearest man in an Arsenal jersey, which happened to be Mikel Arteta. This was what fourth place meant to Arsenal so forgive them if it got a little emotional.
Fourth place? It sure as hell felt like a triumph for Arsenal. They had put Tottenham Hotspur back in their box for another season and they had kept the run of what is now 16 seasons in the Champions League going. It seemed impolite in the circumstances to mention that this was just fourth place for which air was being punched and backs being slapped but that was, indeed, the reality.
Compared to the worst-case scenario for Arsenal, which would have been Spurs taking their place among the elite and a future so uncertain that even the best-laid transfer plans could have gone awry this summer, it was a relief for them. When you consider the seven points they trailed Spurs by after defeat at White Hart Lane on 3 March then it was indeed a monumental effort to haul themselves back.
The thing about Arsenal is that it really does depend on whether you see this particular Wenger vintage as a glass half-full or half-empty. They are three points better off than their final total last season, but one place worse off than last season's third place finish last season. They are in the Champions League play-offs where there are some good teams potentially awaiting them. It could be worse and it could be a whole lot better.
As it is Wenger is sticking to the narrative of a young team, without their "talisman" Robin van Persie, battered by those cup competition defeats to Blackburn Rovers, Bradford City and the first leg at home to Bayern Munich who eventually found their way in the league. It has also been a team without arguably its outstanding player, Jack Wilshere for much of the season.
"We had some big lows," Wenger reminisced, before identifying once again that surprise 2-0 second leg victory away in Munich on 13 March as the moment that his side believed that they could turn it around. It would be fair to say that up until that point they had shown very few signs that they were capable of rescuing the season, and at that point a kinder run-in than Spurs looked like their one advantage.
Certainly, their record since the start of February is the best in the league, but then it had to be given some of the results they had before then. It is a case of which perspective you view it from and on the final day of the season it was all about sticking it to Spurs. For Wenger, it is the story of a team whose "belief", he said, has been "absolutely outstanding". There is merit in that view but it was also hard to ignore the reality that this was once again a team limping over the line yesterday, with a goal from one of their centre-halves.
That was Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal's outstanding performer in both attack and defence. His goal on 52 minutes came after a flurry of Arsenal pressure at the start of the second half in which they finally imposed themselves on Newcastle who, in spite of a greater intent in the first half, had scarcely carved out a chance themselves.
It was a tentative Arsenal performance and not until the very late stages when the game opened up were there more chances, most notably a misplaced pass by Cheick Tiote which put Theo Walcott through on goal, where he clipped the post when he should have scored. That chance was created, in part, by some good work from Olivier Giroud, a second half substitute who had considerably more impact than Lucas Podolski, whom he replaced.
That was Arsenal's key problem in the first half. As sure-footed as Koscielny was in defence, and Per Mertesacker too on this occasion, they had so little bite in attack. Podolski was unfortunate to be flagged offside on 37 minutes but there was no guarantee he would have finished given the indifference of his own form. Other than a Kieran Gibbs cut back to Santi Cazorla that was wasted, it was difficult to recall a chance.
Newcastle had more of the first half. There was a nice moment in the 37th minute when the ground stood to acclaim their own No 37, Steve Harper, who was playing his last game for the club. The goalkeeper appeared to be moved to tears by the moment. Newcastle's best chance, however, was in the seventh minute and fell to Papiss Cisse who missed the target from Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa's cut-back.
Arsenal lost Mikel Arteta to injury on 28 minutes, no surprise given that he had only just been passed fit with a calf problem. Wenger did not feel confident enough in Wilshere's fitness to send him on that early in the game and instead introduced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the centre of midfield. He was excellent in that role and will hope that next season there are more chances like this one.
The goal, when it eventually came, originated with a free-kick needlessly given away on the right by Yohan Cabaye for a foul on Walcott. Walcott's free kick struck Podolski and from close range, Koscielny stretched and guided the ball in, although it clipped the side of Harper's face on the way.
The news of the goal at White Hart Lane was not explicitly conveyed to the players from the bench but even so it was hard to ignore the tension in those last few minutes of the game. There was the Walcott shot against the post, and then Harper had to turn Giroud's cross from the left over his bar.
At the final whistle, there was much taunting of Spurs from the away end and general relief that the status quo in that respect had been maintained. Here was a young team battling bravely against the odds to shore up their one great advantage, Champions League football. Here was a club that was once picking up the Premier League trophy on the last day of the season, celebrating that they had finished fourth. Either way, they wake up this morning in a better place than Spurs, and for many that will be enough.
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