By George Ramsay, CNN
If last week’s Premier League defeat against Tottenham Hotpsur was damaging, over the course of 90 minutes against Newcastle on Monday, Arsenal’s Champions League hopes were all but extinguished.
What really hurts for Arsenal’s fans is that before those two games, the club had been shaping up to announce its return to the top of European football.
The 2-0 defeat at St James’ Park — a performance midfielder Granit Xhaka described as a “disaster” — delivered a huge blow to Arsenal’s chances of finishing in the Premier League top four as the Gunners remain two points behind Tottenham with one game left to play.
To regain fourth position and qualify for the Champions League, Arsenal will realistically need to beat Everton on Sunday and hope bottom side Norwich — without a win in six Premier League games — can pull off an unlikely victory against Tottenham.
But as things stand, Monday’s lackluster defeat appears costly.
“If someone isn’t ready for this game, stay at home,” was Xhaka’s withering assessment of his team’s showing against Newcastle.
“If you’re not ready for that, you’re nervous, stay on the bench or stay at home, don’t come here,” he told Sky Sports. “We need people that have balls — sorry to say that — to come here and to play, because we knew this game is maybe one of the most important games for us.”
Newcastle, with little to play for other than cementing mid-table status, dominated the encounter and should have been in front by halftime — the best chance falling to Allan Saint-Maximin after a lively run past Takehiro Tomiyasu.
The home side did take the lead 10 minutes into the second half when Ben White deflected Joelinton’s cross into his own net.
That goal did little to spur Arsenal into action as waves of Newcastle attacks continued and several chances — including an audacious, long-distance attempt to lob Aaron Ramsdale — fell to Callum Wilson.
But it was Bruno Guimarães, after Wilson had been denied by Ramsdale with five minutes left to play, who scored Newcastle’s second and condemned Arsenal to back-to-back losses after last week’s sucker-punch defeat to Tottenham.
“Newcastle were 100 times better than us in every department from the beginning to the end and it’s hard to accept,” said Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta.
“But you have to accept it and that’s the reality of what happened today on that pitch … We didn’t compete, we never got into the game, we put ourselves in trouble time after time, we lost every duel.
“Every aspect of the game we were second best and Newcastle totally deserved to win the match, probably by a bigger margin as well.”
The result means Arsenal will likely feature in the Europa League next season, and Europe’s second-tier competition comes with its own unique challenges — namely traveling to Europe to play on a Thursday before returning for a Premier League game at the weekend.
That could be difficult for Arteta given his side has struggled with a lack of squad depth throughout the season.
“The team that we were able to build is what we were able to build and it’s the team that has taken us all the way here,” the manager reflected after Monday’s defeat.
Midfielder Thomas Partey has been absent since Arsenal’s defeat against Crystal Palace at the start of April, while left-back Kieran Tierney is recovering after undergoing knee surgery last month.
Those injuries — coupled with the decision not to sign more players during the January transfer window — could have contributed to Arsenal’s undoing, while indiscipline has also been a problem.
Xhaka was red carded in the first half against Manchester City in August, with Arsenal going on on to lose the game 5-0.
In the return fixture at the Emirates Stadium, defender Gabriel was sent off just before the hour mark with the score at 1-1 in a game Arsenal was dominating. City went on to win 2-1, scoring its second goal in stoppage time.
And in last week’s 3-0 defeat by Tottenham, Rob Holding was given a red card just after 30 minutes.
Nonetheless, there have also been signs of optimism for supporters this season.
A run of four straight victories prior to the defeat against Tottenham included wins against Chelsea, Manchester United, and West Ham, and this will be Arsenal’s highest finish in the league under Arteta.
While this youthful side has punched above its weight several times over the past nine months, it will still be hard for fans not to reflect on what could have been: a first appearance in the Champions League since the 2016/17 season.
“Technically it’s not over, we can still do it, but we’ve missed out on two big opportunities to put ourselves in a good position,” said winger Bukayo Saka.
“It’s just a shame.”
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