New season, new captain, new shirt but the same old story.
Arsenal began their final campaign at Highbury with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over 10-man Newcastle on Sunday afternoon.
The goals, a penalty from Thierry Henry and super near-post strike from substitute Robin van Persie, arrived in the last nine minutes. By that time Newcastle had played 50 minutes with a man short after Jermaine Jenas saw red for a challenge from behind on Gilberto.
The visitors responded valiantly to their numerical disadvantage and, although were not at their fluent best, the home side kept playing football and plugging away.
This was never a classic but, with a trip to Chelsea just seven days away, Wenger knew he needed a win. All eyes now turn to Stamford Bridge next Sunday.
Ten of Arsenal's starting XI had begun the last game of the previous season - the FA Cup Final victory over Manchester United. The exception was Henry, who returned to begin his first Premiership game as Arsenal's permanent captain. The Frenchman came into the side in place of Jose Antonio Reyes, who was serving a one-match suspension for his dismissal in the last seconds of the game at Millennium Stadium. New signing Alexander Hleb had to make do with a place on the bench.
This was start of an historic season as the club say goodbye to their home since 1913 before moving to Emirates Stadium. In keeping with the feeling of old and new, a number of former players paraded around the pitch before kick-off then, shortly afterwards, the present crop trotted out in their new-style redcurrant shirts. It was a little strange not to see the team running out in red and white but, as Arsenal fans will see when they take up their seats in a fabulous new arena 12 months from now, change is good.
The game started in bright sunshine and with the passion you'd expect of a top Premiership clash on the opening weekend of the season. In the first 15 minutes, Henry cracked a rasping drive at Shay Given and Alan Shearer dragged a shot across Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal.
However the game fell into a slumber after that and only woke up, albeit with a bang, 13 minutes before the break. There was effort and energy from both sides but little in the way of incisiveness. Then, in the 32nd minute, Jenas scythed down Gilberto in central midfield and referee Steve Bennett deemed the challenge bad enough to warrant a straight red card. Gilberto hobbled off for treatment but returned a few minutes later. Jenas, however, took a one-way trip down the tunnel.
Three minutes later, Ljungberg lofted a free-kick to the far post. Stephen Carr's clearance cannoned off Senderos and the swivelling Toure lashed in a rasping shot toward Given at the near post. The Irish keeper batted the ball behind for a corner.
Shearer did have the ball in the net a few minutes later but the referee had whistled for offside. Still the tide was turning Arsenal's way. Lauren's deep cross found the stretching Henry at the far post. His header flew over the bar.
The teams emerged after the interval with very different ambitions. Newcastle were now happy to settle for containment in the hope of grabbing a point, Arsenal knew nothing less than a comfortable win was sufficient.
As you might expect the home side dominated in terms of territory and possession but, in the opening stages, the best they could manage was Ljungberg's sliding effort which was diverted wide for a corner.
Henry went clear but could not convert then Pires darted to the byline before Given saved sharply from Toure. It was starting to be one of those games when Arsenal huffed and puffed but the visitors just would not let them in.
In the 67th minute a typically crisp move saw the home side carve out their best opportunity of the game. Ashley Cole knocked the ball into Henry on the edge of the area and his first-time touch sent Ljungberg scuttling clear. The Swede got his shot away but Given was out quickly and blocked with his body.
A few minutes later Wenger brought on Hleb and Van Persie for Bergkamp and Fabregas. Dutchman replaced Dutchman up front and the Belarusian slotted in on the left with Pires joining Gilberto in midfield. Arsenal would play out this game with a surfeit of skill in midfield.
They continued to work themselves in to excellent positions but too often the final ball went awry or players misread the intentions of others. Also, credit where it is due, Newcastle were defending stoutly.
But their resistance was broken 10 minutes from time. Ljungberg again burst into the area but this time he was clipped by Charles N'Zogbia as he pulled his leg back to shoot. Referee Bennett pointed to the spot and Henry sidefooted the penalty into the corner.
A few minutes later Ljungberg ended a sweeping move by racing to the byline and cutting the ball back to near post. Van Persie arrived on cue and somehow squeezed his host between Given and the post. Lauren nearly added a third but 2-0 was more than enough today.
It was perhaps hard on Newcastle after their battling display but it does get Arsenal off to the best possible start in a very important season.
- Fabregas 72
- Pires 82
- Bergkamp 72
- Henry Goal!
- Flamini 82
- Hleb 72
- van Persie 72 Goal!
- Boumsong Yellow Card
- Jenas Red Card
- Dyer 69
- Shearer 72
- Milner 72
- N'Zogbia 69