By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Danny Welbeck’s well-worked goal proved the difference as Arsenal secured a hard-fought win over Norwich City at Emirates Stadium.
With the fight for a top-four place nearing its climax, this could well prove to be a crucial three points - but how the Gunners were made to work for it.
Petr Cech was twice called into action in the first half to deny Nathan Redmond, and it wasn’t until Welbeck’s introduction in the second half that the game opened up for the hosts.
Within three minutes of stepping off the bench, the England international had broken the deadlock as he drilled the ball into the bottom corner after good work from Olivier Giroud.
Arsene Wenger’s side would go close again through Alexis and Mesut Ozil in the manager’s 750th Premier League match in charge, but couldn’t quite shake off the Canaries.
Indeed, substitute Gabriel had to make a smart sliding tackle to deny Dieumerci Mbokani in the six-yard box, while the lively Redmond remained a constant threat.
But Arsenal held on to their slender advantage to take what could be a decisive step in their bid to secure Champions League football next season.
SETTING THE SCENE
With the Premier League title now out of reach, Wenger was keen to stress the importance of his side retaining their focus ahead of this match.
With both Manchester clubs in close proximity, the battle for a top-four place remained fiercely contested - but a win against Norwich would go a long way towards achieving that end.
Wenger named an unchanged side for the third match in succession, but the biggest pre-match news was the inclusion of Santi Cazorla on the bench.
The Spanish playmaker had been out of action since the 1-1 draw against the Canaries at the end of November, but his addition to the matchday squad was a welcome sight for the men in red and white.
The visitors, meanwhile, were desperately chasing a positive result in their bid to avoid relegation - and the pressure was on after Newcastle had won earlier in the day, with Sunderland scoring a late equaliser to snatch a draw at Stoke City.
The stakes were high for both sides, but the omens were good for the Gunners, who had won eight of their last 12 home games against Norwich.
While Arsenal started on the front foot - as you would expect at Emirates Stadium - it was Cech who was called into action first as he made a smart stop to deny Redmond in the box.
It was an early warning for the hosts that they would not have it all their own way against a side fighting for their Premier League lives - and they responded well, with Alex Iwobi soon flashing a shot across the face of goal.
Despite this early excitement, it remained a cagey opening as Norwich sought to make things difficult for Wenger’s men, getting men behind the ball and countering swiftly, with the hosts dominating possession while looking for a chink in their defensive armour.
Half chances for Giroud and Mohamed Elneny came and went, and it soon became clear that patience would be required as the visitors maintained a yellow wall between Arsenal and the goal.
Laurent Koscielny glanced a Mesut Ozil corner over the bar before the break, but perhaps the best chance of the half came when Wes Hoolahan found Redmond in the box, and his fierce drive was beaten away by Cech.
It was a nervy moment for the Gunners in a half low on clear-cut chances, and they knew they would have to raise the pace and tempo of their attacking game after the interval.
The hosts found themselves pushed on to the back foot after the restart, with Norwich growing in confidence and Cameron Jerome’s physicality testing the home backline.
Wenger was forced into an early change as Mertesacker limped off holding his hamstring, with Gabriel on to replace him, and Welbeck soon followed off the bench in place of Iwobi.
The change had an almost instant effect when Hector Bellerin chipped in a cross from the right, Giroud cushioned the ball down in the area and Welbeck crashed a first-time shot into the bottom corner.
The goal was greeted with no little relief around the Emirates what had been a frustrating hour in north London, but Norwich came straight back and Gabriel had to make a fabulous tackle to deny Mbokani in the six-yard box.
But it was the Gunners who were playing with more freedom and one sublime Ozil pass to release Alexis through the middle got the crowd to their feet, but John Ruddy was able to hold his shot.
Ozil then tested the Norwich keeper himself with a fierce volley that was tipped over the bar, as Arsenal went in search of the second goal that would surely wrap up the points.
While the Canaries remained obdurate opponents, Elneny came close to doubling his tally for the club with eight minutes remaining but Ruddy was able to push his drive on to the roof of the net.
Despite some late Norwich pressure, Wenger’s side held on to secure the points and move one step closer to a top-four finish.
Referee: Mike Jones
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