Newcastle United 2 Arsenal 0
Newcastle re-established a seven-point lead over Manchester United at the head of the Premier League last night, beating a bemused Arsenal with goals at the beginning of each half from David Ginola and Les Ferdinand.
The victory maintained the Magpies' 100 per cent home record this season, and they again showed an uncanny ability to win when still occasionally falling short of their best.
As a dress rehearsal for next week's Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final at Highbury, the Gunners - on top for much of the first half, but well beaten by the finish - can only hope it will be all right on the night.
For Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, it was the perfect riposte to those who had questioned his team's stomach for the title fight after last week's capitulation against their closest rivals.
"The lads have been champing at the bit, waiting for a game and wanting to bury the ghost of Old Trafford," he said. "We played like a team that wants to win something - that was the difference. We only allowed Arsenal one shot in 90 minutes.
"We've been seven clear before, but it's not just about how many points in front you are. When you play like we did, you feel we can take anybody on."
Searching for an answer to Arsenal's festive slump, Bruce Rioch, the manager, had conducted an hour-long inquest after Saturday's humbling by Wimbledon. For a New Year lock-in it must have been a sobering experience - as was Newcastle's very first attack.
Precisely 56 seconds had elapsed when Ginola, teed up some 20 yards out by the recalled Paul Kitson, let rip at David Seaman with the outside of his right boot. The Arsenal goalkeeper excelled himself in laying a finger on the ball as it swirled towards the top left-hand corner, but his touch flicked the ball in off the upright.
Such an early success should have given United the confidence to move more freely, yet who can ever be truly fluent when Arsenal are in town?
It did not help that a new look five-man defence, with Steve Howey operating between Philippe Albert and Darren Peacock, took time to settle, while Peter Beardsley, the captain, found his hands full with the holding role in midfield.
Yet for all the prompting of a fit-again Tony Adams and the industry of Ian Wright, all the Londoners had to show for their surfeit of possession was a scuffed shot by Paul Merson and a miscue from Dennis Bergkamp.
Newcastle's uncertainties of the opening period were quickly forgotten and forgiven, however, as the second half opened in identical fashion to the first.
Warren Barton's 40-yard ball saw Ferdinand leave Adams floundering, and although Seaman again got in the way, he could offer no more than a helping hand as the striker claimed his 22nd goal of the campaign.
Thereafter, Newcastle's 11th win in as many Premiership appearances at St James' Park this season was something of a formality. Arsenal did eventually manage a direct attempt on goal, with Pavel Srnicek beating out Adams' back-post header, but United began to pour forward with renewed vigour. Kitson might have marked his return to duty with a goal, but struck the post with a flick and nodded Ginola's cross wide.
Ferdinand, too, could have improved the margin when he contrived to drag the ball past the post, but by the whistle Newcastle were comfortable winners.
Newcastle (5-3-2): Srnicek; Barton, Peacock, Howey, Albert, Elliott; Lee (Clark, 88), Beardsley, Ginola; Ferdinand, Kitson (Watson, 79). Substitute not used: Hottiger.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould (Dickov, 71), Winterburn; Parlour (Clarke, 65), Platt, Keown, Merson; Bergkamp, Wright. Substitute not used: Bartram.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury, Oxon).
Last night's results, page 21