Arsenal hold their nerve to clinch Champions League football again

Arsene Wenger's side produced a clinical performance to secure a top-four Premier League finish but now they must kick on if they wish to challenge for honours next year
By Charlie Scott at St James' Park

Their fans wanted a win. Their players wanted a win. Arsene Wenger demanded a win.

Three months ago, Tottenham were seven points in front of Arsenal. Fast-forward to the start of play on Sunday, where the Gunners were two ahead and there was so much at stake for Wenger's men at St James' Park. They knew that any dropped points would push the door to fourth place wide open for their bitter rivals.

With Spurs expected to beat Sunderland at White Hart Lane, the Gunners knew that they would have to replicate that against another North East side, Newcastle.

Such was the magnitute of this game that Mikel Arteta was rushed back from a calf strain to take his place in midfield. The Spaniard was given injections on Saturday to make him available as Wenger asked everything of his players.

Yet, despite a dominant start that saw Newcastle barely touch the ball until the fifth minute, Arsenal's nerves suddenly began to show. Within 90 seconds of kick-off, Santi Cazorla had pirouetted his way past the Magpies' chief schemer, Yohan Cabaye, while Aaron Ramsey looked a clear step or two quicker than his opponent, Cheikh Tiote.

But then Tiote chopped Tomas Rosicky to the floor in front of the Arsenal dugout and the tide seemed to turn. Newcastle grew into the game following that midfield bout, as Hatem Ben Arfa and Yoan Gouffran got the better of Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs.

The north London side's hopes were dealt a further blow when Arteta – who was visibly struggling following that knock against Wigan five days previously – turned to the bench and rolled the index finger of his left hand round that of his right.

Twenty-nine minutes gone, on the back foot and now without their captain. How would Arsenal react, the press box wondered.

'Frail' is a word that has been used to describe Arsenal in the past, brittle another. Not so here.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Arteta in the centre of midfield and the young Englishman performed admirably alongside Ramsey and Cazorla. Though Newcastle's attacking trio of Gouffran, Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse continued to threaten, there was an assuredness about Arsenal's play in the final minutes of the first half that suggested that they had their swagger back.

The Gunners were visibly brighter after the break and it took just seven minutes of their prodding and probing before they took the lead through Laurent Koscielny. The Frenchman reacted quickest to a Theo Walcott free kick to smash a close-range volley past the retiring Steve Harper and send the Arsenal fans high up in the stands above the opposite goal into raptures.

Koscielny grabbed the ball from the net and was surrounded by his delighted team-mates. In the visitors' technical area, Wenger's face was riddled with relief.

There were flashbacks from 371 days previously when it was Koscielny's winning goal in the pulsating 3-2 victory over West Brom that sealed third place for the Gunners at the end of the last campaign.

Once Arsenal had the lead they never looked like surrendering it. Eyebrows were raised as the news of Gareth Bale's wonder-goal at White Hart Lane filtered through to both Arsenal's bench and their fans in the stands but Wenger's side did not crack.

There were jubilant scenes when Howard Webb blew the final whistle, as an exhausted Wenger went round and embraced each of his players on the pitch. The Arsenal boss praised his side's mental attitude after the game and it was clear what he was talking about.

The Gunners will be appearing in the Champions League for the 16th consecutive season in September, a remarkable achievement, particularly given their relative outlay in the transfer market.

Victory here secured both prestige and money. Provided that they get through the qualification stages of the Champions League today's win will have netted them in the region of £30 million. The club are in a position now where they must spend to challenge for domestic honours.

They lost Robin van Persie in last year's summer transfer window and replaced him with Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski, neither of whom have quite lived up to their hype, and they have been without arguably their best player, Jack Wilshere, for a huge chunk of the season, yet still they dramatically pipped Spurs to fourth. The potential is there – there is no doubt about that.

If Wenger's pursestrings are loosened and he is given the freedom to be active in the coming transfer window, then Arsenal – with a world-class striker and a fully fit Wilshere – could well mount a title challenge next year.