It was nervy, uncomfortable, unconvincing, and the longest
90 minutes of football I’ve watched for some time, but it was enough from
Arsenal to secure our 16th consecutive Champions League
qualification as we beat Newcastle United 1-0 on the final day of the Premier
League season, at St James’ Park.
Laurent Koscielny scored the only goal of the game, and in
truth carried the Arsenal side from start to finish with a performance as close
to perfect as I’ve seen this season from any of our players.
From close range
he latched onto Lukas Podolski’s goal-bound header off a Theo Walcott free kick
from the right, and gave the Gunners a slender advantage that we didn’t
surrender to ensure yet another ‘top four’ finish under Arsene Wenger.
In truth, the game wasn’t anything special. The fear and
nerves displayed by almost all Gooners online prior to the game seemed to be
just as prominent in our starting XI that was unchanged from the Wigan Athletic
game last Tuesday. And any early butterflies were only enhanced as our captain
and surprise inclusion Mikel Arteta limped off after just 28 minutes, replaced
by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Jack Wilshere clearly not fit enough to last
Newcastle, playing with the freedom of knowing their
Premier League status was secure, looked the more lively in the first half and
came close to taking the lead when Papiss Cisse fired over following a Mapou
Yanga-Mbiwa cutback in an otherwise downcast first half.
Stern words were called for at half time and Arsenal improved
in the second half, with Walcott testing Steve Harper early on after a poor
kick from the ‘keeper on his final outing for Newcastle after 20 years. The
goal came shortly afterwards in the 52nd minute, and what followed
was a nail-biting climax to the match in which the home side pressed and
pressed but failed to truly test Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal.
Walcott had the chance to finish the game off as Arsenal
countered late on, but the young Englishman fluffed his lines quite badly as he
poked the ball onto the post having done all the hard work, beating a couple of
struggling Toon defenders along the way.
And despite news of Gareth of Nazareth’s inevitable winner
in what I can only assume will be his last game for Tottenham Hotspur (if he
has any kind of ambition besides patenting his ridiculously already used
celebration), we made it through unharmed with another clean sheet, and the
celebrations began as St Totteringham’s Day 2013 was confirmed when Howard Webb
brought proceedings to a close.
There’s not a huge amount of point going into detail on
our performance given the season is now over, and despite the fact we were
fairly awful on the whole it was a world-class performance from Koscielny that
made the difference. Not just his goal, but he made several key interceptions,
tackles and clearances, plus his energy and commitment to the cause was
desirable from the first to last whistle. The partnership he has forged with
Per Mertesacker in central defence has been imperative to our fine end-of-season
form, and despite understandable calls to strengthen that area in the summer I
really don’t think that there is a need to break up this relationship that has
gone from strength to strength.
Talking of the summer, that’s where the focus will rightly
now lie and Wenger spoke after the game of how he expects Arsenal to be “proactive”
in the transfer window. It’s no secret that there’s money in the bank, and with
several of the “deadwoods” expected/guaranteed to leave there will be space in
the wage structure too.
Speculation is sure to reach new heights given the funds
available, and we now have a real opportunity to go out there and make a true
statement of our intent and ambition after overcoming a difficult period of
transition in the club’s fine history. I expect the small gap between ourselves
and Sp*rs to be heavily increased (I really can’t keep doing this every year),
and with managerial changes at the three clubs that finished above us this
season I think it’s fair to say it’s all to play for in season 2013/14. I’m
still of the belief that Wenger is the right man for the job, and with his own
future likely to be subject to intense scrutiny as he enters what is the final
year of his current contract, there’s no doubt his hunger and desire for
success will be as strong as it ever has been. That’s for the coming months
though, and we’ll watch the developments closely and with excitement, and we’ll
be on top of all the news and happenings here on Gunners Town.
For now it’s time to reflect on what has transpired since
August 2012, and whilst people will rightly point to the fact that finishing
fourth isn’t a trophy, it’s been another fine turnaround in form after things
were looking ominous only a few months ago. For that the team and coaching
staff deserves credit. However we were still well short of competing for the
title in the league, and the domestic cup exits were inexcusable and embarrassing
for a club of our stature.
I think it’s fair to say that the bear minimum has been
achieved again, yet with the new big sponsorship deals that have and are due to
be announced, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. Especially given the
way the team has played over the past couple of months, there’s clearly a fine
spirit and belief in the playing squad and I’m totally of the idea that we’re
only a couple of quality players away from really being able to challenge for
the leading honours.
But whilst we’re enjoying our summer
and planning for another year of Champions League football, spare a thought for
our poor old North London neighbours who won’t be having such luxuries, as
Thursdays will still be Sp*rsdays for at least another year. That Gap won’t
maintain, the power won’t shift, and the shadow just won’t disappear.
Happy St Totteringham’s Day 2013, and enjoy your summer.