Newcastle 0 Arsenal 1: Kos the Boss, Champions League Football, St. Totteringham’s Day
The nerves were tingling, the stage was set and the curtain was closing on the 2012/13 Premier League season as Arsenal marched out one final time with their destiny clinging on the result after 90 minutes. Elsewhere, Tottenham hosted Sunderland while Chelsea hosted Everton in David Moyes’ final game as Toffees boss before he embarks on a new adventure as Manchester United’s manager.
Many Arsenal fans (me included) had hoped for the manager would tweak things a bit from the team that ran riot against Wigan. With Mikel Arteta suffering an injury last time out, I gave some permutations on his possible replacements. I also voiced my concerns about Lukas Podolski’s recent outings through the middle as he had not convinced me enough that he was up to the task.
Even if a part of me believed that Podolski’s brace was enough to keep him in the side, I was astonished when I saw Arteta leading the line at the starting lineup. Despite suffering an injury a few days back, the ‘captain’ was desperate to play at the expense of his health. The manager named an unchanged squad from the team that dispatched Wigan and Howard Webb’s whistle signaled the start of Arsenal’s game of the season.
Santi Cazorla was making his 38th Premier League appearance as he was the only player in the team to play every league game this season. The Spaniard lofted a corner that was nodded to safety by Fabrizio Coloccini but it fell into the path of Theo Walcott that blasted his effort over the bar. At the other end, make-shift left back, Mapou Yanga Mpiwa, made mince meat out of Per Mertesacker before supplying a cut back that was blasted over by Papiss Cisse.
Cazorla swung in another dead ball that was flicked across the goalmouth by Laurent Koscielny. With no Gunner attacking the ball, the Frenchman’s effort skewed wide off the mark. Moments after Koscielny almost contributed to a potential goal in Newcastle’s half, he made a vital interception when he and Per Mertesacker hit the deck to block Yoann Gouffran’s effort after some good work down the right from Matt Debuchy.
Gouffran fashioned a great chance for himself when he waltzed Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna but his tame shot was miles apart and it clearly didn’t match up the decent buildup from Gouffran. At that distance, the least he could have done would have been to test Wojciech Szczesny’s goal.
It was puzzling enough that Arteta started the game and it became more puzzling when he suffered a recurrence of his injury only to be replaced by the Ox, which was out of scope, I taught. Yes, he excelled in the role against AC Milan last season and Norwich this campaign but playing him in the holding role was a big ask in a game of this magnitude.
As Arsenal pushed on for the all-important goal, Kieran Gibbs made some space for himself creating a good pass for Cazorla but the Spaniard’s technique let him down as he launched a poorly-struck effort sailed aimlessly over the bar.
Yohan Cabaye fired a long range drive that was easy pickings for Szczesny but on the Polish goalkeeper’s opposite end, the Newcastle faithful honored the 38-year-old Steve Harper in the 38th minute, as they sang his praises and applauded the stalwart that had served the club for 20 years even through he was on the fringes, serving as a back-up to Pavel Srnicek, Shaka Hislop, Shay Given and more recently, Tim Krul.
Arsenal broke away with Walcott sending Podolski through on goal but the offside flag spared Newcastle’s blushes. The German forward still managed to miss the chance and it would have been very embarrassing if he missed that with the assistant referee’s flag down. The last bit of action of the first half saw Hatem Ben Arfa glide his way through the Arsenal defense before blasting his effort over.
In the start of the half, Arsenal threatened when Harper’s poor clearance was intercepted by Aaron Ramsey before he teed up Walcott on his right. With his eyes firmly fixed on goal, Walcott blasted a shot to Harper’s far post but it was parried by the veteran goalie. On the other end, Debuchy was almost sent through on goal but Szczesny anticipated the situation and reacted brilliantly to smother the ball.
Sagna offered little or no threat whatsoever on the right flank but his improvisation won a free kick for his team not far from the corner flag. Walcott took over the responsibility of the dead ball and swung in a cross into Newcastle’s danger area. After the ball ricocheted off Podolski, Koscielny reacted the quickest and showed off his acrobatic side with a swinging shot that almost took out Harper’s head before going in to give the Gunners the lead.
For a considerable chunk of the season, Koscielny spent a lot of time warming the bench because Thomas Vermaelen played alongside Per Mertesacker on merit, because of the mere fact that he was the captain despite his horrible gaffes. It took some balls for the manager to axe the Verm from the squad but the Mertesielny combo has reaped benefits.
Debuchy exploited some space vacated by Gibbs and drilled a cross that was attacked by Gouffran but Mertesacker used his long legs to good effect as he made a trademark Merteception. For those that don’t know, a Merteception is a vital goal-saving interception made by Per Mertesacker.
Arsene Wenger replaced the ineffectual Podolski with a refreshed Olivier Giroud. Newcastle continued to threaten Arsenal’s rearguard with several pelts into the box and after a goalmouth scramble Steven Taylor was ready to go for the kill but Koscielny yet again made another vital interception before suffering a blow from Taylor. Moments later Jack Wilshere replaced Santi Cazorla.
Just when we taught that one goal was enough to assure the Gunners of a Champions League berth and celebrate St. Totteringham’s day, Gareth Bale scored a late winner against a 10-man Sunderland which made the final moments of the game very nervy. With Newcastle going for broke, spaces were exploited at the back as Walcott darted past Coloccini before skipping past Taylor and placing the ball past a hapless Harper. To Walcott disgust, the ball hit the post and rolled effortlessly back into the arms of Harper.
In the end, the Gunners held on to grab an absolutely vital result, sealing fourth place in the Premier League. Judging from how badly things were in the start of the campaign, a fourth placed finish was welcome. According to the Premier League Form Table, Arsenal was the best team in terms of recent results and won every away game since that stinging defeat against Tottenham.
Wenger’s post-match interview had it all, with the boss expressing his relief in sealing qualification yet again, knowing what the ramifications would have been if Newcastle somehow snatched a late goal yesterday. And of course, a word for Tottenham,
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