Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Arsenal v Newcastle - Preview

Emirates stadium

By Chris Harris

They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, two weeks in football can seem like an age.

Cast your mind back to 2.05pm on Sunday, February 26. Arsenal, reeling from defeats at AC Milan and Sunderland, were apparently in freefall when their old foes Tottenham took a two-goal lead at Emirates Stadium.

At that precise moment in time Arsene Wenger's side had never seemed so fragile. Their hopes of silverware had been virtually extinguished and even their regular diet of Champions League football - 14 years and counting - was in danger of running dry.

With Spurs on the cusp of a 13-point lead over Arsenal the travelling fans were cocksure and cock-a-hoop while the home supporters vented their frustrations or sat with heads in hands.

We all know what happened next.

Five goals in 28 minutes woke Arsenal's season from its slumber, a dramatic late winner at Liverpool injected more life and a face-saving, crowd-pleasing win over AC Milan continued the upward curve.

Lest we forget, Wenger's team were knocked out of Europe's most prestigious cup competition on Tuesday. But when is a defeat not a defeat? When it's a thumping win full of goals and guts, of course.

And while Arsenal have been on the up, their rivals have stumbled - emphatically. Liverpool have lost three on the bounce. Newcastle have taken two of the last nine points on offer. Chelsea have lost two games and a manager in the past month.

But Tottenham's travails have been the most telling. Since just after two o'clock on derby day, they have shipped nine goals and nine points. That provisional 13-point lead over Arsenal is down to four - and will be cut to just one should Wenger's side see off Newcastle on Monday.

It's an incredible turnaround in an incredibly short space of time. Suddenly, what was a four-way scrap for one Champions League place looks increasingly like a three-way fight for two spots.

There was plenty that Wenger was not keen to discuss at his pre-match conference on Friday - those he might buy, those he wants to keep, a midweek UEFA charge - but he opened up when the conversation turned to the shifting sands of the Premier League table. And there was a note of caution amid the manager's optimism.

"Our run has given us confidence but it shows you as well how quickly it goes one way or the other," said Wenger. "It has changed in our favour in the space of two games but if we do not keep our momentum it will change the other way around again. That will be down to our consistency.

"We have made up a little bit for the disappointments we have given. I felt that the mentality was always good in the side but we started from position 17 in the league having seen massive players gone and massive players injured. I always felt that the spirit was good this season but we were always questioned on that front.

"We want to finish as high as we can. Is it about Tottenham? It will be difficult because we know that we face a massive battle there with Tottenham, with Chelsea, with Newcastle and maybe Liverpool.

"At the moment for Tottenham it is still in their hands. It will be down to consistency. We have difficult games, they have difficult games and I think we have to make sure first that the fourth spot is there.

"We have created the momentum but we know until the end of the season that every game will be a massive one for us. What is at stake is to be in the top four, if possible in the top three, but it will be difficult for everybody."

Arsenal's results have been impressive in recent weeks, the manner of their victories even more so. Exposed against Spurs and occasionally under the cosh at Liverpool, to coin a Wengerism they "refused to lose" and turned two conceivable defeats into morale-boosting wins.

Indeed no Premier League side has retrieved as many points - 16 - from losing positions as Arsenal have this season. And when you throw in the three-goal salvos against Aston Villa and AC Milan that transformed those FA Cup and Champions League ties, one can hardly accuse Wenger's players of letting their heads drop when the chips are down.

Football fans respond to hard graft on the pitch and nothing raises the temperature in the stands like a rousing fightback that overcomes the odds. For all that, Wenger would prefer his team to lead from the front when Newcastle visit the Emirates.

"It's better not to [need a comeback]!" he smiled. "But you do what you have to to win the game and Newcastle is a team that has offensive strength so a good defensive performance will be needed.

"I'm not sure if this is the best spirit we've ever had but, for consistency of top results, it is the best. For a long time we didn't get one big result after the other.

"The quality of our performances has been high as well because you can say what you want but we scored seven against Blackburn, five against Tottenham, three against Milan and they are good teams. Overall we have a flow in our game because maybe the confidence is higher.

"What we need now is to have the momentum until the end of the season and also to have the players available."

The momentum is certainly there and, increasingly, the players are too. Jack Wilshere and Per Mertesacker are the most high-profile absentees but Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta return to the squad on Monday and Andre Santos is also available after completing a trouble-free rehabilitation from ankle surgery.

With Yossi Benayoun and Abou Diaby not far behind, Wenger has options and a relative embarrassment of riches in the full-back positions after spending much of the winter shuffling his back four.

"Santos is available if he is needed on Monday night to be in the squad," said the manager. "He has been out three months. We played for two months without full backs so we are pleased that we have them back."

The defensive balance that natural full backs bring will come in handy against a Newcastle team that has left plenty of 'experts' with egg on their faces this season.

The side that won last year's corresponding fixture at the Emirates featured an almost unplayable Andy Carroll - further evidence of how footballing fortunes can fluctuate - as well as Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan.

The departure of that English core prompted doom and gloom among pre-season predictors but the new manager, Alan Pardew, has quietly moulded a team that marries effort with elegance - plus the cutting edge of Demba Ba.

Arsenal's 0-0 draw at St. James' Park on the opening day of the campaign - secured despite a debut dismissal for Gervinho - was initially seen as two points dropped. Wenger begged to differ and Newcastle's subsequent push for a top-four finish has vindicated the Frenchman.

"First of all they play with a fantastic attitude but basically what they have done very well is that they bought well," said Wenger. "That is one of the secrets in our game.

"I thought that [Yohan] Cabaye was a very good buy, with [Hatem] Ben Arfa, Ba and [Papiss] Cisse. All their buys were successful and some players have made a name now who were completely unknown at the start of the season.

“You could say that [I am surprised at their success] if you look purely at the number of points they have. They were not expected there,” he went on. “They are a team everyone knows will give you a big game, but what is important is our own performance.

“We cannot be obsessed by Newcastle. If we turn up with a good performance we will win the game. That is what is at stake: to keep up our run and keep our focus.”

And there's the rub. The next 11 games are about Wenger's side maintaining the high standards they set against Tottenham and Milan, when hard work and pressing did for their opponents as much as pace, passing and movement.

As Thomas Vermaelen noted this week, Arsenal can master any opponent if they do that. If they don't, the next two weeks could be as agonising as the past two have been exhilarating.

This is no time to ease off. Fourth place - and perhaps even third - depends on it.

Team news

Arsenal: Diaby (hamstring), Wilshere (ankle), Squillaci (groin), Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee)

Newcastle: Lovenkrands (thigh), Best (knee), Ranger (ankle/foot), Taylor (Achilles), Marveaux (groin)

Match stats

Arsenal have won six of the last eight times they have hosted Newcastle in the Premier League

No side in the Premier League has recovered more points from losing positions than Arsenal so far this season (16). Newcastle have gained four

Demba Ba has 16 league goals in 21 starts for Alan Pardew's side. Arsenal's top goalscorer, Robin van Persie, has 25 in 26

Newcastle have an average of 1.38 points from their away fixtures so far this season - and exactly a point against top-half opposition

Arsenal average over two goals per game in the league (2.03), with Newcastle on 1.44

Arsenal have picked up red cards in three consecutive fixtures against Newcastle. Four would be a Premier League record against the same opposition

Arsenal have scored a stoppage-time goal in three of their last four league matches

Alan Pardew's side have conceded five goals in two of their last three away league matches, losing 5-2 at Fulham and 5-0 at Tottenham

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