Wenger, Gunners exceed expectations

Arsene Wenger leapt out of the dugout, arms in the air. The game wasn’t pretty but it got the job done. Arsenal had defied the odds and sealed a slot in next year’s UEFA Champions League thanks to a 1-0 win over Newcastle.

It was a scrappy and sloppy game but it booked the Gunners their 16th straight slot in European top-flight competition. The result also condemned their archrivals, Tottenham, to another season of Europa League football. Wenger even allowed himself the luxury of a smile.

Wenger’s Arsenal side never looked wholly comfortable on the slick pitch at St. James Park, and for long spells looked the poorer side. But in the second half, Theo Walcott nodded a ball across for Laurent Koscielny that the defender was able to hook in circus fashion past Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper. From there, the game became a test of wills, and try as Newcastle might, they could not break down a surprisingly gritty Arsenal side.

“I think in the end, the fourth place is what you deserve if the table says that,” said Newcastle manager Alan Pardew. “We didn’t have enough to beat them. That back four got them over the line. We tried for the league and for Spurs, but we didn’t have enough.”

For Wenger, it was a triumph of his team’s character. Speaking immediately after the match, he praised his team and pointed out that this year’s fourth-place finish was three points better than the season before, when the Gunners finished third.

“They are a special team,” said Wenger, “and we have shown character and attitude. They have the focus and the desire as well. They continued to believe when we were seven points behind Tottenham in March, we had no room for error, and yet you saw no sign of giving in.”

Nerves played a major part in Sunday’s match. Pappis Cisse nearly rewrote the script when he had a serious effort early that put the Gunners on edge. And for much of the first half, it was the home side that was the more incisive, with Hatem Ben Arfa pulling the strings. Mikel Arteta, clearly unfit, had to be withdrawn early, and without his presence, Arsenal struggled to impose their will.

But chances came and went for Newcastle, and after the break, Arsenal began to impose themselves on the match. Seven minutes later, Walcott’s free kick was acrobatically put into the back of the net by Koscielny, and from there out, the Gunners were in control.

It was hardly convincing, but then again, Arsenal haven’t been entirely convincing all season long. Wenger has been under fire this season nearly from the opening kick. They have failed to win a trophy since they lifted the FA Cup 2005, and suffered a steady drain of their talent.

The Gunners also suffered several embarrassing defeats; they were knocked out of the FA Cup by lowly Blackburn; hammered by Bayern Munich in the Champions League round of 16; and in their lowest moment, were eliminated from the League Cup by Bradford City, at the time a fourth-division side.

Wenger admitted the season had been trying.

“We faced so many storms,” said Wenger. “We had some big blows. Bradford, Blackburn, Bayern, but you never saw the group was not united. That, in the modern game, is exceptional.”

Yet, over the last two months of the season, Arsenal did regroup and found their late season stride.

“I think we have been remarkably consistent,” said Wenger. “We won every away game. It’s a good springboard for next season, but we need to strengthen our group if possible. There are a lot of groups out there with a lot of money, and it’s not as easy [to sign players].”

That certainly isn’t what Arsenal fans want to hear, knowing that the club is sitting on $112 million of cash to spend. But Wenger, who also said he was unruffled by the criticism, is used to doing things his way.

On Sunday, his way worked. Arsenal now must play-into the Champions League early against an opponent yet to be determined. Their London rivals are once again behind them in the table. And they have the lure of Europe to dangle in front of players with no defections of their own on the horizon.

It’s certainly better than many expected – even if it is a fourth-place finish in the end.