Arsenal secured its 16th consecutive spot in the Champions League with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Newcastle at St. James’ Park on Sunday.
Laurent Koscielny was the hero for the Gunners, volleying home from close range in the 52nd minute. The goal gave Arsenal the edge they needed to ensure they wouldn’t be leap-frogged by Tottenham for the final spot in next season’s Champions League.
The Gunners came out strong, linking together well-worked passes through Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta. There was some cause for concern among Gunners fans when the later hobbled off in the 28th minute but Arsenal kept its wits, continuing to retain possession for long periods of time. Chances, however, didn’t come easy for Arsene Wenger’s men as Newcastle’s much maligned defense held up well among the pressure.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa did well to contain Theo Walcott while Cheick Tiote bull-dozed his way through the center of the park, denying the final pass to Arsenal point man Lukas Podolski. The Gunners finally managed to unlock the Magpie defense when Aaron Ramsey found Kieran Gibbs down the left and the full-back cut into the box before providing silver-platter service for Cazorla. The Spaniard got it all wrong though, firing over the bar much to the delight of St. James’ Park.
The much improved Koscielny broke the deadlock seven minutes after the break. Bacary Sagna received the ball on the right touch-line and worked his way parallel to the Newcastle box before Yohan Cabaye hacked the full-back down with a full-blooded tackle.
On the ensuing free-kick, Walcott bent in a cross that found Podolski in the center of the box, eight yards away from goal. The German forward missed his header and the ball re-directed off of his shoulder. Koscielny was the first to react, spinning Fabricio Coloccini and launching himself into the air for an acrobatic volley. The shot banked off the head of Newcastle keeper Steve Harper and into the net. It was bad luck for Harper who produced some stunning saves during his final match before retiring.
Koscielny earned his man-of-the-match stripes at both ends of the pitch and in the 58th minute the Frenchman blocked a promising shot by Papiss Cisse. Six minutes later Newcastle had another chance denied when Yoan Gouffran’s effort was intercepted by Per Metersacker.
For 89 minutes Arsenal fans enjoyed a relatively low amount of anxiety as Tottenham, who needed to win and for Newcastle to earn a result, struggled to find the back of the net against Sunderland. But when word of Gareth Bale’s wonder strike reached St. James’ Park, things grew tense. Instead of possessing the ball and killing off the match, Arsenal went for the jugular and nearly got it when Walcott found himself through in the 91st minute. The winger raced into the box and dragged the ball left, sending the Newcastle defensemen to the ground. With just Harper to beat, Walcott carefully knocked the ball to the far post where it dinked the woodwork.
As the final seconds ticked off Newcastle desperately tried to get forward but nothing came of it. The final whistle blew signifying an end to the match and a long, stressful season for the Gunners.
But what a comeback its been for Arsene Wenger’s side.
Incessantly criticized and ridiculed by the press, the Gunners were 10th in the Premier League table at the start of December. All that changed in the second half of the season when the Gunners finished on a 10 match unbeaten streak, winning eight and drawing only twice.
And while securing their 16th consecutive Champions League spot will taste sweet, it’s even sweeter knowing that this off-season the talk around the Emirates isn’t about the players who are leaving, rather, those who are coming in.