By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal survived a late onslaught to secure a hard-fought victory against title rivals Manchester City on a tense night at Emirates Stadium.
First-half goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud had put the hosts in charge, before Yaya Toure pulled one back late on.
That set up an almost unbearably fraught finale as City threw everything at the Gunners, but Arsene Wenger’s side held for a win that felt like more than just three points.
During a tight first half, the visitors had settled quicker and could have grabbed the lead just after the half-hour mark when Kevin de Bruyne raced through on goal, only to drag his shot wide.
It proved to be a decisive moment as, within 60 seconds, Arsenal had the lead - and in some style as Walcott whipped a powerful drive into the far corner.
Things got even better when, right on the stroke of half time, Mesut Ozil - the master of the assist - slipped in Olivier Giroud, who finished clinically.
Arsenal continued to push for a third after the break, and they came close through Joel Campbell and Aaron Ramsey.
The Gunners looked comfortable but with eight minutes remaining Toure put hearts in mouths when he sent a curling shot into the top corner.
Nerves were shot in the red half of north London during the denouement to a thrilling festive encounter, but the Gunners held on for three precious points.
What a start to Christmas.
SETTING THE SCENE
With just a point separating the teams prior to kick off, there was a palpable buzz in the north London air ahead of a game that had been pitched as a battle between two of the Premier League’s title heavyweights.
While neither could overtake Leicester City at the summit of the table, a victory for the Gunners would help fortify the growing feeling that this is a side capable of landing England’s biggest prize.
And with a record of just one defeat in their last 18 home matches against Manchester City, the stats favoured them too.
With Arsenal in red-hot form, Arsene Wenger named an unchanged team for this Christmas cracker - the only change to the squad seeing Jeff Reine-Adelaide on the bench in place of Mathieu Debuchy. It meant no place for Alexis, who remained sidelined with a hamstring problem.
City, meanwhile, welcomed Sergio Aguero back into their starting line-up, while former Gunner Bacary Sagna was also included on his return to north London.
With Christmas four days away and fans of both clubs digging deep for the club’s charity matchday, there was a party mood around Emirates Stadium as kick off loomed on what felt like a significant night in N5.
As is so often the way in these top-of-the-table blockbusters, the game got off to a tentative start as both sides felt each other out in the opening exchanges.
Arsenal certainly saw plenty of the ball, although it was the visitors who posed more of a threat when they had it - with David Silva and Fabian Delph both getting shots away in the first 10 minutes.
With an extra man in midfield, Citysoon started to pose a serious threat and Petr Cech had to be alert to tip a fierce De Bruyne strike around his near post midway through the first half.
It was tough going for the Gunners who were pinned back in their own half, but they remained patient and continued to probe away in search of a chink in the visitors’ armour.
It nearly came just after the half-hour mark when Joe Hart’s sliced punch clear nearly fell to the waiting Joel Campbell, and that half chance got the crowd to the feet to encourage their side on.
But they were nearly silenced straight away when Aguero put De Bruyne through on goal with a flicked pass, but the Belgian slotted wide of the far post with Silva well placed and unmarked to his left.
City may have looked most likely to score, but when the opener came it was from the men in red as Walcott collected the ball to the left of the area, cut back on to his right foot and curled a stunning strike into the far corner.
It was a sensational strike, and a huge lift for the Gunners at a time when they had been struggling to fashion any chances of note. Coming so soon after De Bruyne’s miss and it felt like a really significant 60-second swing.
Suddenly the momentum changed, with Ramsey flinging out a leg and coming close to diverting home an Ozil corner at the far post.
There was even better to come right on the stroke of half time when Ozil slipped in Giroud and the France international made no mistake with a clinical finish from just inside the area.
Two shots on goal, a two-goal lead - it felt like Christmas had come early as the players trooped off at the break.
As expected, City came flying out of the blocks for the second half as they sought a way back into the game - but the first chance of note came the hosts’ way.
Monreal escaped down the left flank on the overlap and sent a low ball across goal towards the waiting Campbell, but the industrious forward fired his shot over the bar.
Campbell had enjoyed a fine game to this point and he did not let that miss derail him, soon fashioning another chance when he latched on to Laurent Koscielny’s through ball but Hart made a sprawling stop to deny him.
Still the Gunners came forward, with Hector Bellerin soon delivering an inviting ball across goal that Aleksandar Kolarov did brilliantly to reach before Giroud to nudge it away for a corner.
Arsenal were really in the mood by now and Ramsey came close to adding a third after a sweeping counter-attack but he was denied by another close-range save from Hart.
It was a fine team performance from the men in red, but the third goal that would kill off the game eluded them and City threatened intermittently.
Substitute Jesus Navas had a golden chance when he was played through one-on-one with Cech in the 79th minute, but he hesitated and Arsenal were able to scramble clear.
But just as the Gunners appeared to be seeing the game out comfortably, Toure set up a grandstand finish with a fine curling strike from the edge of the area.
Ramsey had a chance to immediately restore the hosts’ advantage but chipped just wide of the far post, before Wilfried Bony saw a shot deflected just wide at the other end.
It was tight and it was tense - but the Gunners held on for the perfect early Christmas present.
What a night and what a win.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Copyright 2018 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.