Arsenal grabs Champions League spot with victory over Newcastle

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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.

La Liga: Real Madrid win wild one, now just 17 points behind Barca

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona ties club-record 31-game unbeaten run ]

Real Betis 3-5 Real Madrid

So long as they manage to hold off Sevilla for fourth place (Champions League qualification), Real Madrid will quickly move on from their disastrous 2017-18 season, spend a half-billion dollars in the summer and pretend like the 12 preceding months never even happened.

For a brief period on Saturday — nearly 30 minutes including the halftime intermission — that plan appeared fatally flawed and at risk. After going 1-0 up away to Real Betis courtesy of Marco Asensio’s 11th-minute opener, Los Blancos found themselves in big trouble after Aissa Mandi leveled things up in the 33rd minute, followed by a Nacho own goal four minutes later.

Five minutes into the second half, Sergio Ramos drew the visitors level, followed by another from Asensio in the 59th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo made it 4-2 six minutes later, at which point Madrid appeared home free.

Sergio Leon pulled Betis to within one in the 85th minute, but Karim Benzema restored the two-goal lead in the 91st, less than two minutes after replacing Ronaldo.

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

With Barcelona still unbeaten on the La Liga season, the title is all but decided with more than three months still to play. That hasn’t stopped Atleti, though, as Diego Simeone’s side, which has lost just once in the league, continues to pursue Lionel Messi and Co. Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao moved Los Rojiblancos back to within seven points of Barca with a dozen games, and one head-to-head matchup, still to play.

Kevin Gameiro scored what turned out to be the winner in the 67th minute, followed not long after by Diego Costa‘s second league goal of the season (fourth in all competitions) to make it 2-0.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Sociedad 3-0 Levante
Espanyol 1-1 Villarreal

VAR provider apologizes for wrong image of offside Man Utd goal

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Whether or not you’re in favor of the use of video-assistant refereeing the world over — and, more specifically, English soccer — one thing on which we can all agree has become abundantly clear: VAR’s maiden voyage has been a chaotic, poorly conducted mess.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho demands VAR calls be “perfect” ]

Any change to the game’s century-old rules and practices — especially of VAR’s monumental proportions — must be implemented and executed without a hitch. Any issues that had arisen prior to this weekend were minor in significance and import, but that all changed on Saturday, when Manchester United’s Juan Mata had a goal wiped away by VAR (WATCH HERE).

Mata appeared to have timed his run perfectly and been onside before slotting home to put Man United 2-0 ahead of Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth round. After consulting the off-site video assistant, the goal was taken off the board. While the slightest bit of Mata’s knee appeared to have been in an offside position, the issue lies in the fact that the images provided to television broadcasters, by VAR provider Hawkeye, displayed a clearly crooked line of demarcation.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

Hawkeye issued a statement on Sunday, acknowledging and apologizing for the faulty image provided to broadcasters, but insisted that a correct version of the image was seen by the refereed:

“A technical error led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawkeye to BT Sport on Saturday. To confirm, the VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologize.”

In the end, by the most stringent interpretation of the law, VAR got the call correct. But that won’t matter one iota in the court of public opinion, as one mistake as simple as a crooked line gives the impression that the entire operation is haphazard and not fit for practice.

Juventus suffers blow with apparent Higuain injury

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The back-and-forth battle at the top of Serie A continued on Sunday as Juventus topped Torino at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, however, the visitors suffered a big injury scare in the process.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup ]

Alex Sandro‘s winner came in the 33rd minute, but the focus of the match will leave all eyes on Gonzalo Higuain — who exited after just a quarter of an hour.

The Argentine international was looking to latch onto a through ball from Miralem Pjanic in the fifth minute, before jumping over an oncoming Salvatore Sirigu — goalkeeper for Torino.

Higuain appeared to land awkwardly on his ankle, though, and while he attempted to continue on in the match he was substituted off for Federico Bernardeschi 10 minutes later.

The extent of Higuain’s injury is unknown to this point, however, it comes at a very bad time for Juventus.

The Italian giants are heavily involved in the Serie A title race, holding a two-point lead over Napoli at the top of the table.

Additionally, Juve has important fixtures coming up in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League against Atalanta and Tottenham, respectively. Higuain and Co. are level at 2-2 with Spurs heading into their UCL second leg in early March, and Juve will surely need the striker’s presence to have a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals.

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

[ MORE: Willian stars as Chelsea routs Hull in FA Cup ]

Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.