Newcastle 0 Arsenal 1
Champagne football is all very well, but as Arsene Wenger conceded, titles tend to be won more on the back of performances exactly like this.
The Frenchman’s sides haven’t always been synonymous with putting their head in where it hurts, but that is exactly what they did for 90 character-building minutes to ensure the year ended in victory, an outcome they have become somewhat accustomed to in 2013.
To call it a backs-to-the-wall win would be stretching a point, because for all their possession and pressure, Newcastle created scarcely any chances of note, Mathieu Debuchy’s looping far post header in first-half stoppage time coming back off the bar in the biggest let-off for the visitors.
It was a slice of luck they earned, as they withstood the physical challenge posed by hosts whose top six aspirations suffered a significant dent with only a second defeat in their last 10 games. While Newcastle’s improvement has been relatively recent, Arsenal’s fine form stretches back far longer. Indeed, had the season run through the calendar year, their 82 points in 2013 would have been sufficient to earn the title.
“Newcastle provided us with a big physical challenge which we stood up to,” reflected Wenger, whose side regained top spot from Manchester City. Seven of the last nine sides to head into the New Year in their lofty position have gone on to lift the title in May and Wenger added: “We showed another aspect of our game today — our resilience. We threw our bodies on the line. Technically we were good but we showed a strong mentality.
“There’s something in the team that’s special on that front. We’ve been questioned many times about that (resilience) but we showed our strength. There’s a great solidarity and strength in the side. Maybe in past years the young age of the players counted against us in resisting the kind of pressure we were put under here.”
Arsenal coped with the absence of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, the midfielders whose absence through injury is expected to be short term. Reflecting on his team’s efforts this year, Wenger added: “We finished well last season and if you look at the bigger picture in 2013, we’ve been very consistent.
“We believe in ourselves and we’re determined to give our best absolutely and to look back on this season and think ‘we’ve given our best’. I hope it will be enough, but there’s a long way to go.”
The decisive moment arrived after 65 minutes, shortly after Newcastle had thrown on Hatem Ben Arfa in a bold attempt to press for a first home victory over Arsenal for eight years, in a tight contest never remotely likely to end in a repeat of Arsenal’s wild 7-3 victory over Alan Pardew’s side a year previously.
Ben Arfa was to prove ineffective in his half-hour cameo, and it was Arsenal who broke the deadlock, Olivier Giroud scoring for the first time in five weeks, the Frenchman’s 11th goal of the season arriving courtesy of a glancing close-range header from Theo Walcott’s lofted free-kick.
“It was a fine finish from Olivier,” added Wenger, who ruled out an improved bid for Yohan Cabaye, the Newcastle midfielder who impressed against the side he almost joined in the summer. The Arsenal manager added: “Every time I think I’ll give Olivier a rest, I have to change my plans because we seem to be a bit short on numbers. He’s so important for us.”
Walcott almost doubled the advantage, the forward’s initial shot blocked by the legs of Tim Krul, before Debuchy’s spectacular goal-line clearance kept out the England international’s follow-up.
They weren’t to prove costly misses. Loic Remy blocked a Wojciech Szczesny clearance to see the ball fall agonisingly a yard wide late on, but with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny imperious in central defence, Newcastle were repelled, Ben Arfa’s wasteful shot into the side netting representing their final opportunity to earn a share of the spoils.
“The margins are so fine at this level,” Pardew, the Newcastle manager, said. “I’m disappointed for the fans and for the players because we’ve not done much wrong to come out with a defeat against our name.
“It’s frustrating we’ve not got a point. It’s just one set play that’s cost us when we’ve not defended well. A lot of my players can take massive credit from the way they’ve played, but unfortunately we’ve got nothing to show for it.”
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-2-3-1): Krul 7; Debuchy 7, Williamson 6, Coloccini 6, Santon 7; Tiote 6, Anita 6 (Ameobi 74, 5); Sissoko 7 (Haidara 79, 5), Cabaye 7, Gouffran 7 (Ben Arfa 62, 4); Remy 6.
ARSENAL (4-1-4-1): Szczesny 8; Sagna 8, Mertesacker 9, Koscielny 9, Gibbs 7 (Arteta 70, 6); Flamini 8; Walcott 7 (Jenkinson 80, 6), Rosicky 6, Wilshere 7, Cazorla 6; Giroud 9 (Bendtner 86, 5).
Referee: Lee Probert.
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