By Richard Clarke
Arsenal tightened their grip on a Champions League place with a thumping 3-1 win at Newcastle on Saturday.
Both sides created and spurned a stack of chances in a crazy first half. But the key moment was surely when Manuel Almunia saved from Obafemi Martin’s penalty midway through.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 57th minute when Nicklas Bendtner steered home a header from Andrey Arshavin's free-kick. However, less than a minute later, Martins was allowed to drive home the equaliser as the visitors lost concentration.
They would quickly recover. Robin Van Persie set up goals for Abou Diaby in the 64th minute and Nasri three minutes later as Arsenal cruised home.
Wenger’s men are now unbeaten in 16 Premier League games. They are also three points clear of fifth-place Aston Villa, who visit Liverpool on Sunday.
The Frenchman made six changes from the side that had secured a FA Cup Semi-Final with that fractious victory over Hull in midweek.
In came Almunia, Kolo Toure, Denilson, Gael Clichy, Bendtner and Nasri. Out went Lukasz Fabianski, Johan Djourou, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Song, Carlos Vela and Theo Walcott.
The last of those had sadly picked up a knee injury as he walked off the training pitch on Friday. But before this game Wenger had revealed the problem was not as bad as first thought.
Unfortunately, Arsenal came into this encounter a little too adrift for the pre-game defeats of Manchester United and Chelsea to mean much. However the pressure was still on for fourth. Meanwhile Newcastle started the match in the relegation zone after wins by Stoke and Portsmouth earlier in the day.
You could see why Wenger had described this game as a cup tie at his Friday press conference. And that is exactly what we would get in a pulsating first half.
The opening stages only simmered but it would come to the boil as half time approached.
The first real opening came in the 15th minute when Van Persie sent Bendtner scampering through in the right-hand channel. The Danish striker got away an excellent cross-shot, forcing a solid save from Steve Harper.
Newcastle claimed a penalty four minutes later when Nasri nudged over Damian Duff but referee Mark Halsey turned them down. They would get a spot-kick at the midpoint of the half when Almunia dropped a cross under pressure from Ryan Taylor and then was adjudged to have hauled down the midfielder as he tried to recover the ball. It was a soft decision but Almunia would make amends. Martins put his penalty to the keeper’s left but the Spaniard guessed correctly and clung on tightly having made the save.
It was a vital contribution from a player who is increasingly important at Arsenal Football Club.
The punishment should have been doubled seconds later. Bendtner nodded the ball to Van Persie on the edge of the area, he fed Arshavin, who had perfectly timed an angled run into the area. His first touch was excellent, his second was a shot that was superbly charged down by Steven Taylor.
Suddenly the floodgates opened and both sides created a torrent of chances before the break. Martins guided a header just wide of the far post. Then on the half hour the Nigerian sent Lovenkrands skipping past Toure and it took another well-timed block from Clichy to prevent the Dane going one-on-one.
Arsenal were having the clearer chances but Newcastle were creating a plentiful supply themselves.
Arshavin escaped a couple of clumsy efforts from Steven Taylor and sent in a fizzing shot from distance. It skimmed the bar on route over.
Lovenkrands failed to connect from point-blank range then Martins sent a shot just wide and Habib Beye, on for Sebastien Bassong, nodded a header straight into the arms of Almunia.
And before half time Arsenal would carve Newcastle apart on a couple of occasions only to be denied by desperate defending.
First Van Persie controlled a cross from Nasri with a deft touch and attempted to flick the ball past Harper. The keeper flung out an expert arm to divert the ball wide.
Then, two minutes from the interval, Fabricio Collicini slipped and Bendtner went clear on the right-hand side of the area. Rightly, he chose to square to Van Persie but his effort was once again blocked by Steven Taylor. Brilliant defending.
Somehow the game went into the break without a goal but there had been opportunities to fill three or four games.
It was wonderful fare.
The trend continued after the break. In the 52nd minute Ryan Taylor’s corner was nodded powerfully towards goal by his namesake Steven and Toure headed the ball away.
A breakthrough just had to come. And it did so in the 57th minute. Ryan Taylor hauled down Clichy on the left, Arshavin swung the free-kick to the far post where the twisting Bendtner turned home a header. It was just what Arsenal needed.
But the lead would last a matter of seconds.
Newcastle kicked-off and clipped the ball forward into the left-hand channel. Sagna inadvertently nodded the ball into the path of Martins in the area. The Nigerian prodded home his seventh goal of the season.
It was mental blow to Arsenal.
But Newcastle would be hit with a physical blow a few minutes later and it would cost them a goal. Steven Taylor had done as much as anyone to keep the game scoreless in that stunning first half.
But he was off with an injury in the 64th minute when Diaby raced onto Van Persie’s touch and slammed the ball high into the Newcastle net.
Three minutes later Van Persie again provided the assist as Nasri’s low drive beat Harper low at the near post.
The third goal drained Newcastle and Arsenal started to steamroller them. Denilson forced a fine save from Harper in the middle of a goalmouth melee. Then Clichy’s defence splitting ball sent Van Persie through but the keeper again made a fine stop.
As the game drew to a close, Arsenal began to slow down. They had what they wanted.
Diaby hit the woodwork from distance in injury time and, when the whistle blew seconds later, St James’ Park seemed a desperate place.
Except for the pocket of Arsenal fans singing loudly high up in one of stands.
Their side are back on song once more.
Referee: Mark Halsey
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