By Max Jones at Emirates Stadium
Laurent Koscielny’s second-half strike gave Arsenal a deserved 1-0 win against a well-organised Newcastle United side on Saturday.
The France defender reacted first to turn in from close range and extend the Gunners’ lead at the top of the Premier League as they got off to a winning start in 2016.
It was a hard-fought victory for the hosts, who were made to wait for their breakthrough by Steve McClaren’s side, and they also were indebted to Petr Cech’s first-half heroics.
The Czech Republic goalkeeper was in fine form and, having broken the Premier League clean-sheet record against Bournemouth, he seemed determined to keep another, denying Georginio Wijnaldum, Jack Colback and Aleksandar Mitrovic in quick succession.
But Arsenal hit back after the restart and, once Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey had both tested Rob Elliot from close range, Arsene Wenger’s side found the breakthrough.
Newcastle had defended diligently throughout the match but, when they failed to clear Mesut Ozil’s corner, Koscielny capitalised, slotting home to secure a first win of the year for the Gunners - and Arsenal’s 100th Premier League clean sheet under Wenger.
It was not always pretty but it was a game champions are expected to win and, should the Gunners continue to grind out results like these, they could be looking at more silverware in 2016.
SETTING THE SCENE
Having ended the year at the top of the Premier League and with more points than any other side in 2015,Wenger stressed that only Arsenal’s best would do in 2016.
Three points against Newcastle United would be a perfect start and form certainly favoured the Gunners, with the hosts winning six of their last seven league games at Emirates Stadium.
Wenger’s side had also triumphed in August’s reverse fixture on Tyneside, and they went into Saturday’s game hoping to extend their run to nine consecutive league victories against the Magpies.
With this in mind, the manager made three changes to the team that beat Bournemouth in Arsenal’s final game of 2015 as Nacho Monreal and Koscielny replaced Kieran Gibbs and Gabriel. Mathieu Flamini’s return meant Calum Chambers was made to wait for his 50th appearance for the club.
Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott continued their role on the wings, with Giroud searching for his ninth goal in his last eight league games against Newcastle.
The last three Premier League meetings between the sides at Emirates Stadium had seen 18 goals scored and, after another frantic start, it was easy to see why.
Hector Bellerin carried Arsenal’s main threat in the opening stages. After his first cross had caused confusion in the visitors’ penalty area, the full back strode forward again to find Oxlade-Chamberlain who, at full stretch, could not hit the target.
Newcastle were happy to surrender possession from kick-off and McClaren’s counter-attacking gameplan almost paid dividends after 15 minutes, but Cech was off his line quickly to smother to Daryl Janmaat’s drilled cross.
The Magpies continued to press, though, and Arsenal were indebted to their record-breaking goalkeeper again moments later. First Cech reacted smartly to push away Wijnaldum’s header, before he rose to his feet to hold on to Jack Colback’s close-range strike.
Wenger’s side had failed to make their dominance count and Newcastle were visibly growing in confidence, with Cheick Tiote bundling through the Gunners’ defence to find Perez, who could only slice over from the edge of the box.
With the rain pouring down in north London, the visitors threatened again. Janmaat sent across another dangerous delivery but Mertesacker was well placed at the near post to head clear under pressure from Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The Gunners had their best chance to break the deadlock in the first half when Oxlade-Chamberlain slid through Giroud, but Fabricio Coloccini recovered in time to deflect the France striker’s shot wide.
But Newcastle took the game to Arsenal once more and Cech had to be alert, first holding on to Mitrovic’s overhead kick before denying the onrushing Wijnaldum on the stroke of half-time.
Newcastle started the second half on the front foot and had their next chance within moments of the restart. Wijnaldum escaped through the middle and ran through on goal, but Cech spread himself well to deny the Netherlands midfielder.
Arsenal broke quickly and soon had Rob Elliot scrambling across goal when Giroud connected with Monreal’s near-post cross, but the striker’s glancing header flew inches wide of the bottom corner.
The game was becoming an end-to-end affair and Newcastle were on the attack minutes later as Perez cut inside from the left to find Mitrovic, who somehow diverted over from six yards.
It was Arsenal’s turn to threaten next and the hosts were unlucky not to take the lead when Ozil found Ramsey unmarked in the box, but Elliot got down well to deny the Wales midfielder.
Momentum was with the Gunners again and, with Newcastle pegged back on the edge of their own box, Koscielny stepped out of defence to find Giroud, who escaped Coloccini before clipping just over the crossbar.
But the French duo combined again and, with 17 minutes to go, Arsenal finally found the breakthrough. Ozil’s corner was only cleared as far as Giroud, who headed back across goal for Koscielny to convert inside the six-yard box.
The Gunners were in the ascendency and there was time for one last chance when Ozil found Ramsey in the box. The midfielder beat two defenders as he bore down on goal, but sliced inches wide of the top corner at the end of an encouraging afternoon for Arsenal.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
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