Two goals in a frantic final two minutes ensured Arsenal started 2014 in the best possible fashion by beating Cardiff City 2-0 on New Year’s Day.
It looked like Arsène Wenger’s side were going to be knocked off top spot during a largely frustrating game played in wet and windy conditions.
The home side could not turn their dominance – in territory and possession – into chances though Jack Wilshere hit the post and Per Mertesacker went wide with a couple of header.
Desperation had set in when Nacho Monreal’s cross was met by Bacary Sagna at the far post. David Marshall pushed it out but substitute Nicklas Bendtner rammed the rebound into the top of the net.
Theo Walcott clipped home a second in added time to seal the win.
The three points keeps Arsenal top of course but the manner of the victory suggests so much more.
Like Newcastle on Sunday, this could have slipped away from Wenger’s men. However they keep on finding a way to win at the moment.
And that is the mark of true title contenders.
SETTING THE SCENE
Lukas Podolski was the centre of attention when it came to the pre-match line-up, literally. The German started his first game in over four months as the lone forward. Olivier Giroud had collected an ankle injury at Newcastle. Kieran Gibbs and Tomas Rosicky had suffered calf injuries of differing severity at St James’ Park. Monreal and Jack Wilshere were their replacements.
However there were other issues swirling around pre-match.
Manchester City had taken over at the top of the table just before kick-off thanks to their win at Swansea.
While that game unfolded, the press room at Emirates Stadium was alive with rumours that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was about to take over at Cardiff. They solidified when the Norwegian took up a seat in the directors’ box.
Driving wind and persistent rain made conditions very difficult and, as a result, the game was littered with errors early on.
The only meaningful chance in the first 15 minutes saw Walcott slide a shot into the sidenetting from Wilshere’s angled ball.
Monreal’s cross went unconverted and Santi Cazorla drove a shot wide as Arsenal started to flex their muscles.
Then Walcott lifted a shot over the bar after Wilshere had seen a strong penalty appeal turned down when he appeared to be tripped by Gary Medel.
On the half-hour, Cardiff created their first chance when Jordon Mutch weaved through and forced an effective if unconvincing save from Wojciech Szczesny.
It was a sign the visitors had their own ambition this afternoon but the game remained in Arsenal’s hands.
Cazorla’s trickery set up Walcott to fire wide and, in the dying seconds, Wilshere’s shot was blocked.
At the break, Arsenal had the edge but they did not have the lead.
The home side tried to remedy that straight after the restart. Sagna fired over and, after a raft of corners, Walcott’s overhead kick was saved by Marshall.
Cardiff claimed a penalty when Monreal flicked a low cross from Craig Noone up into his own arm.
But it was an isolated incident. Arsenal were now entrenched just outside the visitors’ area and looking to advance.
Wilshere weaved inside and fired a rocket of a shot against the outside of the post with Marshall beaten.
Bendtner and Rosicky watched that chance standing on the sidelines. They were introduced immediately afterwards with 65 minutes on the clock.
It was all Arsenal now and frustration was starting to swell. Marshall’s booking for time-wasting suggested they were already looking for the whistle.
Cardiff were on the retreat so the home side started to venture forward in greater numbers.
Midway through the half, Mertesacker headed a couple of chances wide. The first, from Walcott’s cross, was gilt-edged. The second was still scorable but Cardiff had cover on the line anyway.
On 75 minutes, Walcott dinked a free-kick over the wall and on to the top of the net. Then Cazorla tried to trick his way through and Rosicky attempted to prod an effort past Marshall.
The clock was ticking away very quickly now but Arsenal would finally find their breakthrough in the 88th minute.
Monreal swung a cross to the far post and Bendtner thumped home after Sagna’s initial header was parry into his path.
The Danish striker injured himself in scoring and hobbled off. Naturally he got a hero’s send-off as he limped around the pitch.
Walcott raced through to end complete the victory in injury time.
The goals may have come late but they reflected the game.
Even the most skeptical observer much be starting believe Arsenal have a real chance in the Premier League title race now.
Referee: Jon Moss
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