By Nik Brumsack at St James’ Park
Olivier Giroud’s first-half double proved enough for Arsenal to win at Newcastle United on Saturday afternoon.
The France international has been at his best for much of 2015 and scored his 10th and 11 goals of the calendar year during a first 45 minutes dominated by the visitors.
The second half was a different story from the moment Moussa Sissoko stroked home three minutes after the restart. Newcastle were much improved after the break and, having displayed plenty of attacking verve early on, Arsenal were forced to show the more rugged and resilient side of their game in the closing stages.
They did just that, thanks in part to a couple of vital David Ospina saves and a dogged defensive effort led by Laurent Koscielny - who took the armband after Santi Cazorla was substituted.
Arsene Wenger’s side have found form and they have found it at exactly the right time. This was another crucial victory and one that enabled the Gunners to stretch their lead over fourth-placed Manchester United to four points before Louis van Gaal's team travel to Anfield on Sunday afternoon.
Having played eight matches in four weeks, Arsenal now have a chance to recuperate over the next fortnight. And with only Chelsea and Manchester City above them in the Premier League.
SETTING THE SCENE
While Tuesday’s bittersweet 2-0 victory against Monaco could not prevent Arsenal from exiting the Champions League, the win in Monte Carlo was the team’s 13th in their last 15 matches.
Wenger has managed to build momentum despite tweaking his team throughout that run, so it was no surprise to see him alter his line up again for Arsenal’s eighth match in 28 days.
The boss made three changes, with Calum Chambers, Gabriel and Aaron Ramsey all starting. Mesut Ozil missed out due to a slight illness but Giroud - whose mental strength was praised by Wenger pre-match - again spearheaded Arsenal’s attack.
The striker tends to enjoy matches against Newcastle, and had scored six times in his previous five matches against John Carver’s side. That included a brace in Arsenal’s 4-1 win when the teams played at Emirates Stadium earlier this season.
The hosts had lost just one of their previous 10 matches before that meeting, but came into this game with three wins in 15 since. Injuries and suspensions have substantially reduced Carver’s options in recent weeks, so much so that the temporary head coach was only able to select from 13 senior outfield players.
Arsenal have a good recent record on Tyneside. Wenger’s side had not lost in their previous eight visits to St James’ Park - but did memorably concede four times in the last 25 minutes when drawing 4-4 in 2011. Since then though, the Gunners had kept clean sheets here on each of their next three visits.
After an even opening 10 minutes during which Newcastle threatened through the pace of Ayoze and Sammy Ameobi, Arsenal began to take control, with Alexis - operating from the right side - causing problems for makeshift left-back Jack Colback.
The Chilean had the first real chance when Cazorla’s deep free-kick picked him out at the back post, but Mike Williamson dived in to divert the poked effort off target.
With Cazorla orchestrating proceedings from deep and Alexis and Danny Welbeck causing problems on the flank, it seemed it would only be a matter of time before Arsenal took the lead.
Ramsey scuffed a shot wide when well positioned midway through the half, but the visitors would only have to wait two more minutes before making the breakthrough.
Cazorla was again the architect, whipping in a cross perfect for Welbeck to head goalwards. Giroud stuck out a knee to divert the ball beyond Krul and in at the near post.
The goal did nothing to provoke a response from the hosts. In fact, Arsenal continued to dominate. Welbeck and Alexis both went close before Giroud added his second in four minutes, getting in front of Williamson to divert Cazorla’s outswinging corner in at the far post.
Newcastle began the second half with intent and were rewarded within three minutes. Remy Cabella and Ryan Taylor combined smartly on the right flank before the former delivered a low cross into the area. Cabella’s centre was met by an unmarked Sissoko, who crisply guided his 14-yard shot home at the Gallowgate End.
The goal increased noise levels and restored belief among the home faithful, and shortly after conceding, Arsenal were relieved to see Ayoze’s 25-yard curling shot fly inches wide of the top corner.
Having controlled proceedings before the break, Arsenal were forced to dig in as Newcastle continued to wrestle the initiative.
Cabella characterised the hosts’ increase in confidence by charging down Nacho Monreal’s clearance before winning a corner. The resulting flag kick was met by Sissoko, who was only denied his second of the afternoon by the fine reflexes of Ospina.
Wenger introduced Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini - for his 150th Premier League appearance - in an attempt to wrestle back the initiative. Meanwhile Carver called on Jonas Gutierrez, who flashed a cross right across the face of goal soon after coming on.
With Welbeck's pace and direct movement, Arsenal remained dangerous on the counter. But while the England international forced a save from Krul after a determined run, Newcastle continued to create the more noteworthy opportunities in a tense finale.
The clearest fell to Ayoze three minutes from time but, after jinking himself into space, the forward saw his deflected shot kept out well by Ospina as Arsenal held on.
Referee: Mike Jones
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