Arsenal secured the fourth and final UEFA Champions League berth with a hard fought 1–0 win away to Newcastle United, leaving North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur out in the cold for the second successive season on the final day of the Barclays English Premier League football season last Sunday.
Spurs will once again have to settle for Europa League football in the 2013-14 campaign.
Arsenal certainly did not have everything its own way at St. James Park. The presence of Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor back in the center of defense for the home side appeared to have instilled a renewed confidence throughout Alan Pardew’s team who played with composure and looked much more like the outfit that had been good enough to win a Europa League place last season.
Hatem Ben Arfa popped up all over the place and looked a threat whenever he picked up the ball inside the Arsenal half. If he had not missed so many games through injury this year, the club would surely not have been in such a perilous position near the foot of the table.
With first and second choice keepers Tim Krul and Rob Elliot both nursing injuries, Steven Harper was selected to play his last game for the Magpies before retiring after 18 years with the club. More than that, he was made captain for the day.
The long suffering “Toon Army” knows how to reward loyalty and on the 37 minute mark—“37” being the number on Harper’s jersey—they gave the veteran a standing ovation that literally brought tears to his eyes. However, he did not lose concentration and made a couple of top-drawer saves to keep his team in the hunt for points.
Truth to tell, Arsenal rather lacked urgency in the first half and did not play as if a Champions League spot was at stake. Arsene Wenger doubtless had much to say at half time and the team started the second period as if they meant business. The goal came just eight minutes after the restart when defender Laurent Koscielny was on hand to hook a Theo Walcott free kick past Harper from close range.
Drama at White Hart Lane
Meanwhile at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur dominated Sunderland and did everything but score. They were denied clear penalties in each half.
Indeed, a distraught Gareth Bale was even booked for diving when video replays showed he had been pulled back and hauled down in the box.
The woodwork also came to Sunderland’s rescue. With just too many desperation tackles, Paulo De Canio’s team finally went down to 10 men with a quarter of an hour remaining.
It was once again left to player of the season Bale to pull a rabbit out of the hat as he has done so often. In fact, this was a carbon copy of several spectacular goals Bale has scored.
He collected the ball on the right side of the field and cut inside with the ball on his favored left foot, moving to make space for the shot which was unleashed with unstoppable power and accuracy into the roof of the net from all of 30 yards.
That was on 89 minutes and White Hart lane erupted, particularly as someone seemed to have spread an unsubstantiated rumor that Newcastle had scored against Arsenal. However, as the news came through that Arsenal had held on for a win and three points, the ground was enveloped in a deathly hush.
In point of fact, Arsenal did begin to look anxious when the news of Bale’s goal was circulated and they endured a nervous last few minutes. Theo Walcott could have put the issue beyond doubt in the 91st minute, but hit the post with only Harper to beat.
Nonetheless, the Gunners’ collective nerve held and they qualified for the Champions League for the 16th successive year. Of course, they will have to play a qualifying round, and there will certainly be some good teams going into the draw, so reaching the group stage is by no means guaranteed. Mind you, none of the other sides will want to be drawn against Arsenal either.
Anyone but a die-hard Arsenal fan will feel for Tottenham. Interviewed by Fox Sports after the game skipper Michael Dawson summed up the feelings of everyone at the club in one word: “gutted.”
A fourth place finish last season would normally have been good enough, but they missed out because Chelsea (a full 5 points behind Spurs in sixth place) qualified by virtue of actually winning the trophy.
Spurs have played some great football under Andre Villas-Boas this season and Gareth Bale, in particular, has really come of age. He still has periods when he drifts out of a game, but time and again, he has delivered when the chips are down and been Spurs’ match-winner.
Especially now that they have missed out on Champions League football, it is likely that Tottenham will be hard pressed to keep him should some of Europe’s giants with very fat wallets come calling.
1,500 and Out for Sir Alex
While the battle for fourth place was unfolding, Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge of Manchester United for the 1,500th and final time against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns.
In a remarkable game that was played more like some sort of testimonial, the Baggies were twice three goals behind but somehow managed to fight back, courtesy a hat-trick from Romelu Lukaku, to achieve an unlikely 5–5 draw.
It was a gutsy performance from Steve Clarke’s West Brom side that, despite a disappointing second half to the season, ended the campaign with their highest ever Premier League position and points total (8th and 48 respectively).
Paul Scholes entered the fray with 26 minutes to go for his 718th and final appearance. He also picked up his 97th yellow card for a typical Scholes tackle.
It is hard to believe that United would have let such a lead slip if anything had really been at stake. For instance, in one attack Javier Hernandez appeared to be trying to set Scholes up for a farewell goal when he could almost certainly have scored himself.
So if the game was reminiscent of a testimonial, that is essentially what it was. While United were conceding five goals, senior defenders Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand—captains all—spent most of the afternoon on the bench exchanging pleasantries with their manager, though Ferdinand was eventually sent on to try and halt the West Brom comeback.
Sir Alex finally bows out with 38 trophies (49 if you count those won before his arrival at Old Trafford) to his name.
So ends another season of the Barclays English Premier League. The top three clubs will all start the next campaign with new managers—a highly unusual situation.
The much, and unjustly, maligned Rafael Benitez has done a pretty good job in the caretaker role at Chelsea, and closed out his tenure with a 2–1 win at home to David Moyes’ Everton.
Meanwhile Manchester City, with Brian Kidd in charge following the sacking of Roberto Mancini, stumbled to a 3–2 home defeat at the hands of lowly Norwich City.
Many Manchester City fans feel that Mancini has received poor treatment. Whoever takes over at Eastlands, may well have the most difficult task of all next season’s new bosses. It will not be easy to come in and balance the huge egos of City’s foreign legion of stars—most of who were handpicked by Mancini.
While there will be fresh starts for those three giants of English football, the three notable underachievers of Newcastle, Liverpool, and Aston Villa will also be looking for improvement.
Villa have spent 100 years in the top flight—more than any other club except Everton—during which time they have won 21 major trophies at home and in Europe. It is a club that should not be fighting against relegation.
Liverpool achieved a position of no more than respectability but, painfully for their fans, finished two points behind Merseyside rivals Everton.
Newcastle’s struggles this year have already been mentioned. The football crazy Northeast deserves better than their two major clubs finishing in the slots directly above those that were relegated.
The next Premier League season will be the first ever without Sir Alex Ferguson, and for that reason alone, promises to be absolutely fascinating. There will be many new faces both in the dugouts and on the pitch.
And what of the future of Wayne Rooney?
Fans around the world will be looking forward to the new campaign with eager anticipation—roll on August!
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