Newcastle 0 Arsenal 1
If this is Arsenal’s ‘negative spiral’, Arsene Wenger will no doubt look forward with dizzy excitement to making sure it continues long into next season and beyond.
Andre Villas-Boas wrote off Tottenham’s closest rivals thus when, in late March, his side enjoyed victory in the North London derby, to increase their advantage over Wenger’s men to seven points, a 16th consecutive qualification for the Champions League at the Emirates Stadium looking a forlorn hope.
Fast-forward two months, and this gritty victory at St James’ Park rounded off an 11-game unbeaten run, nine of those wins, since the somewhat unwise assertion by Villas-Boas — think red rag and bull — whose side again trailed in behind not so much noisy neighbours, but quietly understated ones, despite recording the highest points tally at White Hart Lane in the Premier League era, 72.
In terms of claiming their now annual place in the top four and the financial reward that brings, it was mission once again accomplished for the Gunners, whose recent form has been title-winning, but supporters can be forgiven for not allowing themselves to go overboard with their celebrations.
Wenger is honest enough to know that events at St James’ Park shouldn’t be allowed to paper over the cracks. It’s eight years and counting since an Arsenal skipper lifted silverware of repute, during which time the likes of Wigan Athletic, Swansea City and Birmingham have made notable additions to their trophy cabinets.
And if you happen to be an Arsenal follower of the glass half empty persuasion, you’ll need little reminding that fourth place was a distant 16 points behind the title-juggernaut that is Manchester United and their Dutch top scorer who needs little introduction. A club whose era of close rivalry with the North Londoners now seems an age ago, reflected by the decreasing enmity between the respective managers.
Wenger enjoys a similarly cordial relationship with Villas-Boas, as he has done with the majority of Tottenham managers during his 17 years in charge, hardly surprising from the Frenchman’s point of view, given that he continued his enviable record of never having finished below the side from N17.
Hopes of climbing above Chelsea into third on the final day were dashed by events at Stamford Bridge, as were any fanciful thoughts of a play-off with their London rivals to decide who would avoid the Champions League qualifying round in August as Arsenal were made to graft for a fifth consecutive away victory in their league, their most impressive run for nine years.
With the incentive of a £1m payout on offer from owner Mike Ashley to all non-playing staff for victory — a cunning motivational ploy and neat piece of PR, given the potential financial outlay was covered by the added Premier League merit payment that would have accompanied a win — Newcastle, even in defeat, partly atoned for the nine goals shipped in their two previous home games.
They were undone in the 52nd-minute, Theo Walcott’s flighted free-kick from the right knocked down by Per Mertesacker for his central defensive partner Laurent Koscielny to swivel and beat Steve Harper with a deft close-range volley. It was the Frenchman’s fourth goal of the season, his first in the league since September In a game of few clear chances, Wenger’s gamble to field injured skipper Mikel Arteta lasted less than half an hour before the Spaniard was forced off in a first half where Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse fired over left-footed from a Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa cross, before Koscielny gave warning of what was to come sending a glancing header from a Santi Cazorla corner just wide.
Harper, in his 199th and final Newcastle appearance after almost 20 years at the club, saved well from Walcott’s angled drive immediately after the restart. The veteran goalkeeper was afforded little protection as Koscielny pounced for what turned out to be the winner soon after. Arsenal thereafter lived up to their billing as the Premier League’s meanest defence on the road, admirably dealing with a hectic finale as news filtered through of Tottenham’s late winner against Sunderland, which meant the visitors would have been edged out for fourth had they conceded an equaliser.
As it was, Arsenal came closest to the contest’s second goal, Walcott leaving a wake of trailing defenders with a typically speedy run on goal, only to be let down by a poor finish, which was pounced on by Harper after it had struck the base of the post. In the end it didn’t matter. So much for that negative spiral.
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