January 3, 2014
With one game remaining in the festive season, it has to be said that things right now are very festive indeed.
Arsenal ended 2013 on a high-note – top of the table high – and then rang in the New Year with another three points to retain that lead.
But each game was a battle.
On Sunday, Arsenal made the trek up north to take on an in-from Newcastle side. For a while it looked like this could have been a high-scoring affair with Arsenal surging out of the blocks, showing little sign of this being the seventh game of the month. But Newcastle made a strong push at the end of the first half, and very nearly got on the scoreboard.
Arsenal finally took the lead midway through the second half after a beautiful free-kick by Theo Walcott. The Englishman floated the ball into the area where it was met by the head of Olivier Giroud. It was his eighth league goal of the season – and 11th overall – and his first in seven games.
Newcastle threw everything they had at Arsenal's defense for the remainder of the game, but the scoreline ended 1-0. "In the last 15 minutes we have shown another aspect of our team - resilience, fight," said Arsène Wenger after the game. "We threw our bodies in the box. You have seen today a technical aspect of our team that was quite good but as well a mental aspect that was needed in a game of that stature."
Walcott was just happy with that defensive resilience. "It just shows that we've got great character in that dressing room and we're getting stronger and stronger every week," he said. "Everyone trusts each other, which is so important."
That was seconded by Wenger who hailed his squad's "solidarity, togetherness and fighting spirit."
Also relishing the team spirit was Mathieu Flamini. He added that finishing the year at the top of the league table "was very important for us, for the fans, for the Club, for everyone." Lukas Podolski put it in these warm and fuzzy terms: "We have a good team and we have a lot of fun together. I have never been in a team like this before."
Granted, critics can spout that there is no trophy for being top at the halfway point of the season – and of course they are correct – but it would be hard to argue that it doesn't show off Arsenal's title ambitions.
And the manager insists that the rediscovered ambition has now turned into belief that Arsenal are in fact capable of not just challenging for the title, but winning it.
But for that to happen, one thing has become crystal clear over the last few weeks: every single point counts. That point is perfectly illustrated by Manchester City. They have steadily been climbing the table since the beginning of December and managed to leap-frog Arsenal after their lunchtime win on New Year's Day. And after 88 frustrating minutes against Cardiff, it looked like they would stay there.
But a goal finally came from an unsuspected source: Nicklas Bendtner. The big Dane replaced Podolski – who made his first start in over four months – after 65 minutes and quickly made an impact, as did fellow substitute Tomas Rosicky. In the 89th minute, he was in the right place at the right time and powered home a rebound to put Arsenal on top. Walcott followed that with a stoppage time goal to seal the win.
The win, however, came at a cost. As Cardiff's goalkeeper dived to attempt a save on Bendtner's goal, he ended up right underneath the striker as he followed through on his shot. Bendtner rolled on his ankle and was injured before he was even able to celebrate the eventual game-winner.
There was little time between Nik's goal and the post-match press conference, but the injury was severe enough to get a sense of it straightway. "It looks like it is not a question of days, but weeks, with a sprained ankle," said Wenger. "I am very sad for us, but for him as well."
The injury is a big blow to Arsenal's depth up-front, which was already not considered to be remarkable. Asked about how this will affect his plans for the January transfer window, the boss gave a firm maybe. "We are just analysing the situation," he said. "Being very cautious until we are well informed about Bendtner and [Yaya] Sanogo as well, because he is back in training now. We will make a decision after that."
Reaction from the players suggests that they know that a deep squad is absolutely vital if the team are to make a title push. But it also shows that Bendtner was fitting in – and being depended on – more than many may have realized. Mikel Arteta said as much in a post-match interview on Arsenal Player. "He is part of this team and he's worked hard. His attitude has been spot on since I've been here."
Wenger had even more to say regarding Bendtner. "He has quality, who questions his quality? Nobody. What you want from him is to be focused on giving absolutely 100 per cent and he is a great centre forward."
The injury is especially unfortunate from a squad standpoint when you look at the team news ahead of Saturday's FA Cup showdown with Spurs. As of right now it looks Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey will also miss out.
While it could be a blow to Arsenal's offensive output, the bigger concern against Tottenham could be defense. Since Andre Villas-Boas was sacked, the Fightin' Chickens-standing-on-basketballs have traded their pressing, defensive minded style to a much more attacking 4-4-2 formation. Wenger noted that they are "more adventurous" and their two forward partnership of Sodaldo and Adebayor are extremely dangerous at the moment.
But there is one very sparkly silver lining for us. The home team have won each of the last five north London derbies. But as Walcott said, you can throw stats out the window when these two teams play. "Hard work will decide it," he said. "If everyone’s doing their jobs right and working hard for each other - that's what it comes down to in the end."
A couple of things to bear in mind for this one. It's a somewhat unusual kick-off time on Saturday: 12.15pm ET. It’s also being aired on FOX in the USA, so the TV audience has the potential to be enormous.
FA Cup. North London derby. Late-ish weekend kick-off. Does it get any better for Arsenal fans on this side of the pond?
Come on you Gunners!Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 3 Jan 2014