It is a tribute to Arsène Wenger that the phrase "Lucky Arsenal" that once belonged in the same bracket of recognition as the British Rail sandwich is now equally as meaningless. Arsenal are many things these days; beautiful, awesome and sometimes fragile but they are almost never fortunate.
And yet but for one speculative drive from Patrick Vieira and a failure to spot what appeared a blatant handball, Wenger would have found himself seven, maybe eight, points behind Chelsea as his annus mirabilis changes to the more questionable 2005. Asked how he felt at the midway point of the campaign, Wenger replied: "It is like being on a bike; you put your head down and you go. With five games left you look up and see who is around you." Arsenal are now pedaling slightly more smoothly this was their third successive clean sheet but victories are being ground out.
Vieira's goal was similar to Sol Campbell's winner at Portsmouth in that it was struck from distance and arrived from nowhere, although it had a slice of fortune in that it deflected off Jermaine Jenas's body to take a looping arch over Shay Given.
Since Newcastle lost only once to Arsenal at St James' Park under Sir Bobby Robson, this has to be counted a very good win, although the proud club Robson ruled is, just over 100 days after his sacking, almost unrecognisable.
When Vieira scored, however fortuitously, it was the 38th goal Newcastle had conceded, four fewer than West Bromwich Albion and two fewer than in the whole of last season. Jean-Alain Boumsong, whose manager Alex McLeish was at St James' Park last night, will have to be some kind of centre-half to justify Rangers' inflated valuation. Nevertheless, Celestine Babayaro is likely to arrive before the end of the week and Alan Shearer, in whose absence Newcastle have looked rudderless, will return for Saturday's home game with Birmingham.
Hard as Graeme Souness's patched-up side fought and much as they deprived Arsenal of midfield space and attacking options, Newcastle find themselves in 14th position this morning and with many fans perhaps relieved they were not humiliated. The defence Souness put into the field comprised two full-backs, one very raw, the other who is expected to be sold next month. Of the centre-halves, one was played out of position, the other had spent most of the season as an object of derision.
Newcastle's chairman, Freddy Shepherd, used the programme to plead for patience, although having sacked Robson after four matches of this season and Kenny Dalglish two matches into a previous campaign, he had shown his employees none.
However, the match would have done nothing to improve Sir Alex Ferguson's belief that Arsenal enjoy a charmed life. Five minutes before the interval, Ashley Cole used his fist to punch away a long ball in his own penalty area, while a similar wave of the hand had seen Wayne Rooney on an FA charge. Typically, Wenger claimed the incident had not caught his glance. "You know," he smiled. "My eyesight just gets worse and worse."
Souness, as many managers do against Arsenal, employed a five-man midfield, with Craig Bellamy flung out on the right to counteract Cole's pace and these tactics generally held good. The workload on the slender shoulders of Shola Ameobi was consequently immense but twice he made crucial interventions, judging a long punt upfield rather better than Campbell and forcing a fingertip save from Manuel Almunia. Moments later, the two men tangled again with Ameobi clearing Campbell's header off his own line. Luck did not ride exclusively with Arsenal.
Newcastle United (4-5-1): Given; Taylor, Hughes, Bramble, Bernard (N'Zogbia, 87); Bellamy, Bowyer, Dyer, Jenas, Robert; Ameobi. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Milner, Brittain, Ramage.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Lauren, Touré, Campbell, Cole; Ljungberg, Flamini, Vieira, Pires; Van Persie (Clichy, 76), Henry. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Fabregas, Senderos, Pennant.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).Reuse content