By Richard Clarke
Arsenal missed the chance to pile pressure on leaders Chelsea by losing 1-0 to Newcastle at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Arsène Wenger’s side would have moved within two points of the Stamford Bridge side with victory here this afternoon. But in the end, Andy Carroll’s towering header on the stroke of half-time meant they dropped to third place in the table.
The Newcastle striker was the key figure this afternoon. He scored the goal, lead the line manfully and helped out his defence when required.
To be honest, it was required a good deal. Although Arsenal were not at their best today, they had most of the play. Newcastle scored with their first effort of the game while the home side hit the woodwork three times and Newcastle keeper Tim Krul saved wonderfully from Samir Nasri just before the goal.
Still, this is a heavy blow to Arsenal, who had Laurent Koscielny sent off in stoppage time. They have had problems in each of their last four home games in Premier League – losing two of them.
In the next week Wenger takes his side to two tough, hard-working sides – Wolves and Everton.
After today, they need to respond.
Wenger’s team selection was full of interest this afternoon. Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and Alex Song (calf) returned from midweek absences to go straight into the starting line-up. As a result, Tomas Rosicky was among the substitutes and Craig Eastmond was omitted from the squad.
Andrey Arshavin (virus) was also back but only made the bench.
However the biggest news was the return of Robin van Persie after he had injured his ankle at Blackburn on August 28. He was among the substitutes.
Elsewhere Koscielny and Bacary Sagna replaced Johan Djourou and Emmanuel Eboue at centre half and right back respectively. Marouane Chamakh was the lone frontman so Nicklas Bendtner was pushed down to the bench.
This was a pressure game for Arsenal. Of course, they all are but this afternoon they had the opportunity to push the strain on to Chelsea.
However Newcastle came into this game in seventh place and still bubbling from that 5-1 win over Sunderland last weekend. And they started the afternoon as if they were not prepared to play the fall guys.
Shola Ameobi escaped down the left in the opening seconds and Koscielny had to nod clear his cross with Carroll lurking. The pony-tailed frontman would go on to have an eye-catching first quarter. He was a powerful and willing runner in the channels. His work gave the Arsenal defence plenty to think about.
But gradually the midfield in front of them started to take over and, as a result, the home side eased into the driving seat.
In the 15th minute, Fabricio Colocconi fouled Wilshere as he weaved through. Fabregas’ free-kick deflected off Carroll in the wall and looped on to the bar with Krul beaten. The keeper recovered to tip the rebound behind.
A few minutes later Fabregas tried to pirouette past Coloccini and Mike Williamson but the two defenders put him off and the Spaniard’s shot deflected wide off the latter. Koscielny had a shot blocked from the resulting corner and then Walcott saw his cross nodded just past his own post by Jose Enrique.
It seemed that Arsenal were going to take over. But, in fact, Newcastle fought back. They did not create much themselves but they were working hard enough to stop the home side carving them apart in trademark style.
In fact, just before half time, this game seemed to be shaping up worringly like the West Ham one a fortnight earlier. Arsenal might have won that game at the death but, for the first 88 minutes, they had looked like throwing away two frustrating points. However this rollercoaster game would have another ‘up and downer’ as the interval approached.
Six minutes before half time, Fabregas drove into the sidenetting and then set up Nasri for a first-time effort that seemed bound for the top corner before Krul stretched out his right hand and turned the ball aside. A fantastic stop.
From the corner, Carroll quickly fed Jonas Gutierrez and his probing right-wing cross was hooked out of danger by Sagna at the far post.
Still for all their efforts, as we passed the 45-minute mark, Newcastle had not registered a shot on or off target.
However, in injury time, they would score with their first.
Sagna fouled Gutierrez just inside the Arsenal half and Joey Barton pumped a long ball to the far post. Carroll beat Fabianski in the air and his header looped into the empty net.
Depending on who you supported, it was a classic centre forward’s goal or a sucker-punch.
However while Arsenal had not done that much wrong in the first half, they had not done enough right.
Their task in the second half was to alter that balance.
In fairness they started well. Walcott hit the bar twice in the opening five minutes. Firstly from a looping cross on the byline, secondly (and more dangerously) after driving into the area from Wilshere’s pass and letting fly.
Then Song fired low into the area from the right but the stretching Chamakh could not convert.
It was a lively start but once it had died away Wenger did not hesitate to make changes.
Just before the hour, Nasri and Chamakh were brought off, Arshavin and, to tumultuous cheers, Van Persie came on.
However Newcastle were organised in their defending and yet still breaking where they could. As a result, Arsenal’s opportunities started to dry up.
Indeed the visitors started to get a little joy on the break or by hitting Carroll with long balls. In the 70th minute the Newcastle striker chested down one of them and went for goal from range. The shot flew wide.
That effort prompted Wenger to make his last substitution – Bendtner for Wilshere.
With 15 minutes left, Arsenal were now 4-2-4 and gearing up for ‘Alamo’ territory.
And Arshavin was leading the charge. The little Russian weaved his way into several good positions and, with nine minutes left, supplied an inch-perfect cross for Fabregas. The captain’s header was clutched by Krul on the line.
A couple of minutes later, he helped harry the ball from Carroll and then cracked a volley wide.
As time ticked on, Arsenal were losing impetus and Newcastle had more joy on the break. In injury time, substitute Nile Ranger was hauled down by Koscielny. It was a certain foul but Squillaci disputed the decision, claiming he was a covering defender. The Frenchman had a point.
However, by that time, it seemed an irrelevant discussion.
Because Newcastle had taken three themselves.
Referee: Mike Dean
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