Arsenal were brilliant at Highbury last night. Fantastic, scintillating, awesome and wonderful. Sorry Arsène, that claim suffers from media hype. The Premiership leaders actually produced a very patchy performance which ranged from outstanding to incompetent.
One element in which, mercifully given the past week, they were consistent was in their behaviour. Craig Bellamy's niggling could not even persuade the Highbury Six to raise a scowl, never mind an arm. The only player booked, improbably, was Newcastle's Laurent Robert for a bad tackle. The bookies, who offered 5-1 against an Arsenal dismissal last night, would have offered huge odds on that one.
The chances of Wolves winning at Bolton today are almost as long, which will come as a relief to Newcastle who will go bottom if they do. Arsenal, meanwhile, know they will be top all weekend but the victory which ensured primacy came at a price. Patrick Vieira, Ashley Cole, Martin Keown and Freddie Ljungberg all suffered injuries with the Champions' League tie in Moscow coming up on Tuesday.
"It will be miraculous if we can get all four fit. We could lose them all," Arsène Wenger said. The Arsenal manager added that Sol Campbell, who is on compassionate leave, ought to be back although he had not trained for 10 days. Dennis Bergkamp, injured and averse to flying, will certainly not be there.
To Wenger's relief the one player he cannot afford to lose, Thierry Henry, escaped unscathed. The Frenchman scored the first and last goals of a dramatic but undistinguished game to take his season's total to seven in nine games.
The first, after 18 minutes of incessant Arsenal pressure, followed a shocking error by Titus Bramble who miss hiskicked in attempting a clearance to complete a bad couple of days. On Thursday he was found guilty of speeding, the offence compounded by his not displaying the appropriate plates for a provisional licence holder.
This was but the latest escapade of a Newcastle dressing-room noted for its off-field indiscipline. Perhaps Sir Bobby Robson, who before this match described Arsenal's behaviour at Old Trafford as irresponsible, should look closer to home.
At least, on this evidence, he need not worry about Newcastle's much-questioned spirit. After both Henry's goal and Gilberto's 67th-minute header they rallied levelling within eight and four minutes, respectively. Keiron Dyer was the inspiration for both, Robert and Olivier Bernard applying the finishing touches.
At this stage Arsenal, with Keown and Ljungberg limping, looked vulnerable. Then Jermaine Jenas, for the second time this season, foolishly gave away a late penalty. At Everton he made a rash tackle, here he needlessly handled a corner. Henry coolly chipped in the penalty.
"It's a very unfortunate night," Robson said. "We deserved a point. I question the referee for their third goal. It was a penalty but it would never have happened if he had not given a free-kick beforehand against Titus [Bramble] after he had made a fantastic tackle."
He added: "I'm concerned about our position but I'm not going to panic. We came from behind twice away from home and showed character and industry. With a team like that we should not be in trouble."
Wenger also praised his team's character though this was in connection with the criticism they have received this week. "Every time we had to respond we did which shows how united the team is," he said.
"The players were a little shocked by the intensity of the criticism we got. They were flat in training. I did not know if, with every tackle under scrutiny, they would put their foot in at all."
He need not have worried. Bolstered by their support - the Highbury Six were each given rousing cheers when the Arsenal XI was announced with Keown especially serenaded - Arsenal showed controlled commitment. Keown, who Wenger said had apologised for his "over-reaction" at Old Trafford, led by example. After three minutes he headed away a dangerous Robert free-kick, then he astutely intercepted an Alan Shearer pass headed for Bellamy.
Henry had also began brightly weaving into the area at speed within 80 seconds. He slipped a pass to Cole which Given just fingertipped away. Given denied Henry and Sylvain Wiltord twice miskicked in front of goal before the pressure told. Lauren delivered a cross from the right and Bramble kicked air, wrong-footing Given but not Henry at the far post.
At this stage Newcastle had barely escaped from their half and a rout seemed probable. Had Henry been partnered by a more potent striker than Wiltord it might have been. Instead Newcastle, with their first serious attack of the match, equalised. Bellamy and Shearer combined to release Dyer who cut to the byeline and squared. Robert, Lauren and Gilberto all reached for the ball but only Robert celebrated as it was stabbed past Jens Lehmann.
Thereafter Newcastle largely matched Arsenal though the latter still created the better chances as Gilberto Silva responded to the challenge of Vieira's departure. However, the chances fell to Wiltord, who continued to misfire.
The second period repeated the opening of the first with Ljungberg striking the post before Gilberto headed in from Robert Pires' free-kick. Again Newcastle responded, Bernard lashing in Dyer's pass. Newcastle sniffed their first win of the season only for Jenas to hand Arsenal the points. "They've scored from a hash of a miskick, a set play, and a penalty. In between we've scored two fine goals," Robson lamented.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 4; Lauren 5, Keown 6, Touré 6, Cole 5 (Cygan, 51); Parlour 5 (Pires, 61), Gilberto 8, Vieira 5 (Edu, 24), Ljungberg 6; Henry 7, Wiltord 2. Substitutes not used: Stack (gk), Aliadière.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 6; Hughes 5, O'Brien 5, Bramble 3, Bernard 6; Dyer 7, Jenas 4 (Ameobi, 88), Bowyer 4 (Speed 5, 72), Robert 4 (Ambrose, 80); Shearer 4, Bellamy 4. Substitutes not used: Caig (gk), Griffin.
Referee: M Riley (Yorkshire).Reuse content