Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger hailed his current squad as one of the best he has ever assembled after they sealed Champions League football with a 1-0 victory at Newcastle on the final day of the Barclays Premier League season.
Scorer: Arsenal - Koscielny (52)
Referee: H Webb
The Gunners arrived in the north-east knowing anything less than a win would leave them open to being overtaken by great rivals Tottenham in the race for fourth place, but Laurent Koscielny’s goal in the first half saw Arsenal over the line.
Arsenal can now look forward to a 16th successive season playing among Europe’s elite – providing they come through a qualifying match – and Wenger was fulsome in his praise after seeing his players end the season well.
A 2-1 loss to Spurs left Arsenal seven points adrift of their north London foes in early March, since when they have taken 26 points from a possible 30 to end the campaign a point clear of Andre Villas-Boas’s troops.
“They are special. I’ve told them many times, but they’ve shown it in the last two months they’ve been absolutely exceptional,” Wenger said. “We have shown character and attitude.
“We make 73 points – that’s three points better than last season.
“I’ve had many groups in my life and the focus, the desire to do well, was exceptional. It’s one of the best groups I’ve had in my life on that front.”
Asked if silverware now needs to be the next aim after another barren campaign in that area, Wenger added: “We want of course to do that next season, but let’s not forget the consistency we have shown over the years to get into the Champions League.”
Newcastle had motivation of their own to defeat Arsenal at St James’ Park, after owner Mike Ashley’s offer of £1million to be shared between the club’s non-footballing staff if they ended a difficult campaign with a victory. But a third successive defeat at home, albeit despite a much-improved display, meant the staff went empty-handed and 38-year-old goalkeeper Steve Harper was denied the perfect finish to his long career on Tyneside in front of a crowd of 52,354.
The Gunners enjoyed plenty of possession with Santi Cazorla the fulcrum, but with Newcastle defending competently they found chances few and far between.
Theo Walcott, who was largely effectively contained by makeshift full-back Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa before the break, whistled a sixth-minute shot over Harper’s crossbar and Koscielny glanced a header harmlessly wide from Cazorla’s 12th-minute corner.
But in the meantime, Magpies striker Papiss Cisse had gone significantly closer, whipping a first-time left-foot effort just over after a fine cross by Yanga-Mbiwa.
For all Arsenal were able to retain possession for long periods, they were unable to penetrate, with Cheick Tiote harrying in the middle of the park and Yoan Gouffran closing down space further upfield.
Gouffran dragged a left-foot shot across the face of goal with 13 minutes gone and Jonas Gutierrez saw a shot from distance deflected safely into Wojciech Szczesny’s hands four minutes later.
There was little to choose between the sides, but the Gunners had a glorious opportunity to take the lead with 14 minutes of the half remaining. Aaron Ramsey picked out full-back Kieran Gibbs in acres of space on the left and he cut inside Mathieu Debuchy before squaring to Cazorla, who steered his shot high over.
Yohan Cabaye tested Szczesny from long range with a dipping effort seven minutes later, but Hatem Ben Arfa, who produced several spellbinding solo runs during the first half, could not hit the target after cutting inside five minutes before the break.
Harper, who was warmly applauded by the home fans as the clock ticked into the 37th minute – his shirt number – was called upon for the first time within 60 seconds of the restart, and he will have been mightily relieved to find himself equal to the task after handing the Gunners their chance himself.
The goalkeeper’s scuffed challenge fell to Ramsey, who slid the ball into the path of Walcott, but the England international could not beat Harper.
However, Arsenal had emerged in far more determined mood and they went ahead with 52 minutes played when Per Mertesacker headed down Walcott’s free kick for central defensive partner Koscielny to volley past the helpless Harper from close range.
Vurnon Anita, on for the injured Cabaye, sparked a promising 58th-minute attack for the Magpies in which Jonas Gutierrez set up Cisse, but his shot was blocked at source by Koscielny.
It took Mertesacker’s intervention to deny Gouffran a 64th-minute equaliser after Anita had picked out Mathieu Debuchy on the right, and the Frenchman was soon replaced by compatriot Sylvain Marveaux as Pardew looked for a way back into the game.
Walcott had a glorious opportunity to make sure at the death when he carved his way through the home defence, but with just Harper to beat, he stabbed the ball against the foot of the far post, but ultimately Koscielny’s effort proved enough.
On the win, Walcott concluded: “A lot of people thought we wouldn’t do it today so it’s nice to show them that we could do it. I’d like to say it’s a shame [that Spurs missed out on fourth place] but it’s not really.”