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Wenger wins the war as Lukaku bursts Fergie's bubble

ESPN staff
May 20, 2013
Arsene Wenger guided Arsenal to Champions League qualification for a 16th successive season © PA Photos
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Goalkeeper

The Tottenham nerves that jangled throughout a muggy North London day at White Hart Lane were made even janglier by the contribution of Simon Mignolet, who was as solid as a rock for visitors Sunderland until a Gareth Bale shot - the sort that would have beaten any keeper, anywhere - whistled past him in the 89th minute. Mignolet demonstrated immaculate handling throughout as Sunderland so nearly claimed a point, denying Bale, Tom Huddlestone and Clint Dempsey and dealing superbly with a succession of free-kicks and crosses.

Defender

People talk a lot about the impact made by Christian Benteke for Aston Villa. And so they should. But at the other end of the pitch, Ron Vlaar has been tremendous in a tough campaign for Paul Lambert's men. He led his back four very well as Wigan piled on the second-half pressure in an attempt to end their relegation season with a win, and scored an absolute screamer to secure the Midlanders a share of the spoils just after the hour mark. Another big performance from the big Dutchman.

Defender

So farewell, then, Jamie Carragher. One of the last of the top flight one-club men bowed out with victory against Queens Park Rangers thanks to a clean sheet his own performance had done much to ensure. He did what he has always done, winning all the key headers and generally being in the right place at the right time. He showed an unexpected flourish of pace to deny Loic Remy and feed the ball back to his goalkeeper. Oh, and he hit the post with a 25-yard shot. Not a bad afternoon's work for this genuine Liverpool hero.

Defender

If the nerves were jangling at White Hart Lane, they were doing the same thing at Newcastle - but Arsenal did what they had to do to secure fourth place. No Gunner was cooler than Laurent Koscielny, who was an absolute tower of strength for Arsene Wenger's side. Challenge after challenge was made and won, and the Frenchman got forward to score the all-important goal with a close-range volley. Many an Arsenal fan will be raising a glass to him.

Midfielder

Life hasn't been fun in recent weeks if you're a Fulham fan, with their season petering out in a series of limp performances and dismal results. But they were neither limp nor dismal against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium, and Alexander Kacaniklic's sparky display was the main reason for that. He scored the opening goal and was in the middle of everything the Cottagers did, hitting the bar and seeing his late effort parried into the path of Urby Emanuelson for the third goal.

Midfielder

Ah, Juan Mata. What a player he is, and what a season he has had. In the 1,375th game of Chelsea's campaign, he was as buzzy as ever. His control and vision are central to all that Chelsea do well and, although his opening goal against Everton may have been scruffy, the way in which he kept the Blues ticking over throughout was a delight. The huge ovation when he was substituted late on told its own story.

Midfielder

When Big Sam Allardyce rumbles into town, the chances are that Little Kevin Nolan will be with him. And how delighted West Ham fans must be that the Sam and Kev show has succeeded so well this season. Nolan was in full-on poaching mode against Reading, aided and abetted by Andy Carroll, sealing a top-ten place for the East Londoners with a hat-trick and generally running the show. He rounded off his treble with one of those typical Nolan runs, ghosting in to head home in the Upton Park party atmosphere.

Midfielder

Romelu Lukaku scored a hat-trick against Manchester United in Sir Alex Ferguson's final game in charge © Getty Images
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The astonishing transformation in Norwich City's last two performances has been reflected in Jonny Howson. The Canaries have suddenly gone from tentative and goal-shy to aggressive and goalscoring, and played superbly to win at Manchester City. Both Howson and Wes Hoolahan flitted around to creative effect, all darting runs and neat touches, but Howson shades it for the quality of his winner, a run from near enough halfway that culminated in a low finish beyond Joe Hart. Last week, he had curled in a 25-yarder against West Brom. A player reanimated.

Midfielder

The enjoyable chaos at The Hawthorns in Sir Alex Ferguson's final game - at least he won't ever forget the football played on this day - had a lot to do with the contribution of Antonio Valencia, wreaking havoc down the right and producing one of his best recent performances. He fizzed in the cross from which Jonas Olsson's own goal put United two up after ten minutes, was instrumental as Robin van Persie scored the third and returned to the sort of form that won him so much acclaim last season.

Forward

Romelu Lukaku - wow. He has been a spectacular success story for West Bromwich Albion this season, and the reasons why were all present and correct in this stunning 45-minute cameo against United. The visitors were unable to cope with his pace, power and uncompromisingly direct running, and he helped himself to a hat-trick in a game that saw the Baggies turn a 5-2 deficit into a 5-5 draw. His will be very difficult boots for West Brom to fill when he returns to parent club Chelsea.

Forward

This season's Grant Holt is Southampton's Rickie Lambert - a man who had never played in the Premier League before yet has taken to it instantly and contributed hugely to his side's comfortable survival after promotion. Goal No. 15 for the bustling Lambert earned the Saints another point as he equalised just before the hour. Earlier, he had seen a goal disallowed, been denied by Asmir Begovic and shown his all-round game with the astute pass that freed Nathaniel Clyne to create another chance.

Manager

The man in the season's final dugout is Arsene Wenger, so often unjustly maligned but the mastermind of another qualification for the Champions League - a 16th in succession. He has kept that run going despite a modest net spend in recent seasons, during which time Arsenal have moved into a state of the art new home. Their run of form since February this time has been superb and, while those who measure football only in terms of money spent and trophies won won't think so, his is quite some achievement.

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