Arsenal secured qualification for the Champions League for the 16th consecutive season as they beat Newcastle United 1-0 in an efficient performance at St James’ Park. Needing a victory to ensure that they stayed ahead of north London rivals Tottenham in the race to finish in the Premier League’s top four, Arsenal grabbed the only goal of the contest through Laurent Koscielny’s close-range finish early in the second half.
The goal was to prove crucial too as Tottenham grabbed a late winner against Sunderland. It ensured a tense few minutes for Arsenal, who missed a late chance to make the points safe when Theo Walcott hit a post. But the Gunners held on against a Newcastle side with little to play for in a performance that typified much of their displays in their strong run to the end of the season -- often not enthralling but with a greater mental toughness and resiliency than has often been seen from Arsene Wenger’s teams in recent years.
Seven points behind Tottenham when they were beaten by their neighbors at the beginning of March, it has been a stunningly relentless run-in from Arsenal in claiming 26 points from the final 30 on offer. Arsenal will still have to face a qualifier to get into the Champions League group phase as third—placed Chelsea defeated Everton.
Arsenal began brightly and put a Newcastle side with little but pride to play for under pressure early on. The best they could muster, though, was an effort over the top from Theo Walcott.
As the half wore on, Arsenal’s play became labored with little threat in the final third and, indeed, it was Newcastle that created the best chance of the opening 45 minutes. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa playing out of position at left-back, showed his attacking credentials with a good run down the flank before scuffing a cross to Papiss Cisse, who should have done far better than blazing over the bar.
While Arsenal continued to have the lion share of possession, a Newcastle defense that has been porous this season -- not least in a 7-3 defeat to the Gunners earlier in the season -- was largely comfortably holding their opponents at bay.
The closest Arsene Wenger’s side could come to a breakthrough before the break was a glancing header wide from Laurent Koscielny after a corner and a poor effort skied over the bar from Santi Cazorla following good work down the left by Kieran Gibbs.
Yet, within 10 minutes of the start of the second half, Arsenal would get the vital breakthrough. Walcott had already had a low effort turned away by Harper before the forward’s corner free-kick set-up the vital goal. Lukas Podolski tried to get on the end of the delivery but the ball instead just deflected off of him and fortunately into the path of Koscielny right in front of goal and the defender produced an acrobatic volleyed finish to turn the ball in off of Harper.
The goal failed to set Arsenal on the path to a comfortable victory, however, and the visitors became increasingly defensive as they looked to preserve their precious advantage. Newcastle assumed control of both possession and territory but lacked the quality to force clear-cut chances against a more resolute defense than Arsenal have often produced.
Yoan Gouffran had the best of the openings as he looked to get on the end of Mathieu Debuchy’s low cross, but Per Mertesacker did enough to deny the forward. There was always the hope of some magic from Hatem Ben Arfa, and the creative France international looked to threaten with a powerful long-range effort, but it was always swerving away from goal.
When Tottenham scored late against Sunderland, Arsenal knew that a goal from Newcastle would have put them out of the Champions League places. That tension could have been eased in the final minutes but Walcott flicked the ball against the past when clean through. Yet, Newcastle lacked the ability or urgency to get back on level terms and Arsenal celebrated their place in the top four but will also know that more will be expected next season after what could be an eventful summer at the Emirates.