20 May 2013

Final weekend reflections

It's time to say goodbye as the Premier League season draws to a close. After yesterday's final day of action, we look at those big names making their final appearances, but first, there's a look at the contrasting emotions in North London.

Arsenal's English stars, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, celebrate.
Hooray, we finished fourth!
They always seem to find a way, do Arsenal. For the 16th season in a row, they have qualified for the UEFA Champions League.

Their 1-0 win over Newcastle United secured a 4th-place finish ahead of neighbours Tottenham Hotspur. It kept alive their proud record of having never failed to qualify for Europe's elite club competition since Arsene Wenger's first full season as manager.

The decisive goal came seven minutes into the second half. Theo Walcott's free kick was headed towards goal by Lukas Podolski, and the much-improved centre-back Laurent Koscielny swivelled to fire the ball in.

Walcott could have finished Newcastle off in injury-time, hitting the far post when it was easier to score. At that point, one goal at the other end would have shattered Arsenal's Champions League dream for another season, but the final whistle blew a few minutes later with the Gunners' win secured.

Wenger and his backroom staff celebrated as if they had won a trophy, but it was perhaps more out of relief than joy, because after eight trophyless seasons, failure to finish in the top four would surely have meant the end for the 'Professor' at the Emirates Stadium.

The Gunners didn't start this season particularly well. It wasn't as bad as last season, when they spend the early stages of the campaign dangerously near the relegation zone, but they were 10th after 15 games. Their form steadily improved, but as recently as 3 March, they were seven points behind Spurs in the standings.

Once again, though, a late Arsenal surge saw them get back into the top four. From 1 February onwards, Arsenal accrued 35 league points - five more than Tottenham, or indeed anyone else. 26 of those points came from their last ten matches, which consisted of eight wins and two draws.

That sort of form makes one wonder: why didn't Arsenal start the season like that? Also, why didn't Wenger spend big on players that can be outstanding now rather than four or five years down the line?

Well, apparently, that's going to change. Wenger has promised to splash more cash in a bid to finally end the Gunners' trophy drought, and with four of the top six clubs having a change of manager next season (possibly even five if Andre Villas-Boas decides to leave Tottenham for a bigger challenge), the 2013/2014 campaign represents a massive opportunity for the Frenchman and his players.

We Gooners all know that Arsenal are too good to go eight seasons without winning any silverware, but surely, SURELY, it'll be ninth time lucky.

Andre Villas-Boas gives his commiserations to his Tottenham team.
Not again!
Tottenham Hotspur fans must be waking up today thinking, "What have we done to deserve this?"

Last season, Spurs broke into the top four of the Premier League, but missed out on the UEFA Champions League after Chelsea won the Final of that competition on penalties. Yesterday, they beat Sunderland 1-0 to set a new club points record in the PL era of 72... but it still wasn't enough to get into the Champions League, as bitter rivals Arsenal edged out Newcastle United 1-0.

One Newcastle goal would've tripped up the Gunners and allowed Tottenham to finish fourth. In the end, though, they came fifth and must settle for a third successive season of ITV4 Thursdays in the UEFA Europa League.

Tottenham were practically camped in the Sunderland half throughout the match. They had 23 shots at goal (19 of them on target), 14 corners, and they played the final 16 minutes with an extra man after Sunderland's David Vaughan was dismissed. They could easily have won by a canter, although in this case, they just needed to win, no matter how narrow the winning margin.

The goal that they so desperately wanted came in the final minute of normal time. Gareth Bale, who had been so near to breaking the deadlock several times, jinked inside, and then curled a 25-yarder into the top corner of Simon Mignolet's net. It was a fabulous goal good enough to win any game, but because of events at St James' Park, it was meaningless.

Bale has had the best season of his career so far, and with Tottenham having to settle for the Europa League, you can't help but feel that it'll be his last at White Hart Lane. The Welshman has attracted the attention of several European giants, including Real Madrid, who last summer paid in excess of £25million for Spurs midfielder Luka Modric. How much is Bale worth, in that case?

Missing out on prestigious away games at the Nou Camp and the San Siro will also force manager Andre Villas-Boas to change his transfer plans. Established names like Gonzalo Higuain and David Villa are surely out of the question.

Villas-Boas will probably go down the old Tottenham route of buying young English talents who are just making their mark in the top flight. That raises the likelihood of Spurs bringing Southampton's exciting teenage left-back Luke Shaw to White Hart Lane.

Hmm, Southampton's exciting teenage left-back signing for Tottenham? Where have I heard that before?

Steve Harper: "Time to say goodbye, paesi che non ho mai..."
So long, farewell...
There has been a surprisingly high number of English footballing figures making their final bows this weekend.

On Saturday, David Beckham's floodgates opened after he captained Paris Saint-Germain to victory over Brest. Yesterday, we also saw Jamie Carragher make his last appearance for Liverpool, and it ended in typical fashion. No, Carragher didn't score an own goal, but he kept a clean sheet.

Then, there was the double goodbye to Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and midfielder Paul Scholes. A remarkable game, which United led 3-0 and 5-2, ended with West Bromwich Albion levelling the scores at 5-5!

It was an incredible end to Ferguson's 1,506-game career at Old Trafford. Everyone else says that he managed United for exactly 1,500 games, but they don't seem to count intercontinental matches for some reason.

There was also Michael Owen's final game, but he couldn't end his brief Stoke City career with a goal against Southampton. Aside from those previously mentioned, there were two other long-serving Premier League figures saying goodbye yesterday, and I'd like to give them a mention.

Newcastle United gave their backup goalkeeper Steve Harper a rare start against Arsenal. It was his 199th and final match in the Newcastle goal after 20 years at St James' Park.

In the 37th minute, Newcastle fans applauded their number 37, and County Durham boy Harper was visibly moved by the cheers from his supporters. He is very much an unsung hero on Tyneside - whenever he is called upon, which is not very often, he always does his level best to keep the Magpies' opponents at bay.

Harper had a string of loan spells early in his career, and could easily have left Newcastle permanently in search for guaranteed first-team football. BBC commentator Steve Wilson summed up his loyalty to the Magpies, saying, "In an era in which players, only recently, have asked for transfers because they occasionally get substituted, he's stayed for 20 years at this football club without barely ever getting off the bench."

Now aged 38, he has plenty of career options. He could continue his playing career at another club, or he could become a pundit, a coach, a manager, or even a referee! Whatever he does next, good luck to him.

Good luck, also, to one of the Premier League's leading referees after his retirement. Mark Halsey's final game of his 14-year PL career was Norwich City's 3-2 victory at Manchester City.

The 51-year-old survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009, and his wife has also battled against cancer. He said after blowing his final whistle, "I have had three great years since I have come back from my illness and hopefully I have been an inspiration for all those men, women and children out there living with cancer, and it can show them we can beat this."

You most certainly have, Mark. Enjoy your retirement as well.

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