Champions League looks a tall order

IN the end, even the spirit of Sir Bobby was insufficient to inspire a victory.

On the day that Newcastle United unveiled a statue to the last manager to take them into the Champions League, the club's current squad suffered a defeat that is likely to prove terminal to their chances of competing in Europe's premier competition again next season.

The Magpies will go into their final game at Everton in fifth position, two points behind third-placed Arsenal and one point adrift of fourth-placed Spurs.

The odds on finishing in the top four are stacked against them after Yaya Toure's double inflicted only a third home defeat of the campaign and went a long way towards securing Manchester City's first league title since they claimed the crown at St James' Park in 1968.

But having fallen so far since Sir Bobby Robson paid a heavy price for finishing fifth in 2004, Newcastle can at least console themselves with a guaranteed Europa League place and a restored sense of pride.

This has been a season of considerable achievement on Tyneside, and whatever happens at Goodison Park in six days time, Alan Pardew's side will have far exceeded the expectations that existed at the start of the campaign. If, as now looks likely, it is to be fifth, you will be hard pressed to find a supporter complaining.

There were plenty of fans willing to remain in their seats for the annual lap of honour that followed yesterday's game, and for once, the phrase was not a misnomer.

The likes of Tim Krul, Fabricio Coloccini, Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse have emerged as genuine heroes this term, and the roars that greeted their tour of the St James' Park pitch underlined the depth of appreciation for their efforts.

But this has been a supreme squad performance and perhaps the most poignant post-match scenes were provided by the likes of Mike Williamson and James Perch, figures who have emerged from the fringe of the first team to play crucial roles in the second half of the season, and Peter Lovenkrands, who was the last to leave the field as he bade farewell for what will be the final time before his contract expires in the summer.

For Lovenkrands, this was the end. For most of his team-mates, it is to be hoped it is merely the end of the beginning, with Pardew keen to enter the transfer market this summer to strengthen a squad that does not require too much reinforcing in order to be able to compete for a top-four spot with regularity.

The fact that Manchester City's coaching staff were so joyous at the final whistle yesterday spoke volumes for the threat that was posed by their hosts.

Having beaten Manchester United to place one hand on the title last Monday, City knew they would be severely tested on Tyneside. That they overcame the test with a fair degree of comfort, merely confirmed their status as worthy champions.

They have been the best side in the Premier League all season, and while Manchester United left St James' Park chastened after Newcastle subjected them to a 3-0 trouncing at the start of January, there was never really a chance of City suffering the same fate.

Buoyed by Wednesday's thrilling 2-0 win at Chelsea, Newcastle attempted to compete as equals, but were regularly frustrated by the efficacy of City's defending.

Reverting to a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation with Ben Arfa hugging one flank and Jonas Gutierrez pushing wide to the other, there was clearly a desire to exploit any holes left by City's attacking players.

But while Newcastle have swept a number of teams aside at St James' this season, Manchester City are made of sterner stuff.

Cisse, so effective against just about every other side he has encountered, was rendered impotent, with a 78th-minute header that failed to find the target his only intervention of note.

Demba Ba displayed commendable willingness, but was unable to find the target with a first-half effort that sailed over the crossbar.

Ben Arfa was probably Newcastle's liveliest attacker, but save for a first-half volley that forced Joe Hart into his only save of the game, even the Magpies' mercurial Frenchman was blunted.

For that, City's central defensive axis of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott deserve considerable credit.

Kompany, a cultured blend of power and technique, would probably have been crowned player of the season had Robin van Persie not enjoyed such a stellar campaign, while Lescott has improved markedly in the past 12 months and fully deserves a place in England's Euro 2012 squad.

In front of them, Toure bossed midfield before he was pushed forward in search of a winner, a move that ultimately proved decisive.

Prior to Roberto Mancini's tactical reshuffle, City struggled to forge a breakthrough despite an array of attacking talent that sporadically threatened to pick Newcastle's defence apart.

David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez all went close before the interval, before Davide Santon produced an excellent goalline clearance to deny Gareth Barry four minutes before the break.

Tevez fired wide from a decent position in the 54th minute, but despite the importance of the occasion, it was to City's credit that there was no sign of panic as the clock ticked on.

Instead, the visitors merely continued to play their football, and they were rewarded with 19 minutes left.

A lengthy passing move ended with Toure playing a one-two with Aguero, and from 20 yards out, the Ivory Coast international curled a delicate finish into the bottom right-hand corner.

Aguero missed two golden opportunities to make the game safe - the first, which saw him roll the ball past the post when completely clean through, was a particularly glaring error - and City might have paid a heavy price had Micah Richards not blocked substitute Shola Ameobi's shot with two minutes left.

Sixty seconds later, though, and the visitors' celebrations could really begin. Gael Clichy broke free down the left-hand side, and Toure calmly converted the full-back's low cross from the edge of the six-yard box.

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