Having disappeared off the Premiership radar in recent weeks, the Arsenal beacon reappeared yesterday glowing brighter than ever. Normal service was resumed, as the champions welcomed back their captain and talisman, Patrick Vieira, as well as their ability to win at home.
Following Manchester United's surrender at Maine Road earlier in the day, neutral eyes were on Highbury and the last remaining challengers for the Premiership title. Some may deem it too early to discount Sir Alex Ferguson's men, but you sense that last season's Double winners are now in a two-horse race with the current leaders, Liverpool. Arsène Wenger did his best to dismiss the idea, but his cheeky inclusion of Tottenham in the teams that "could go all the way" suggests the Arsenal manager is happy with this morning's standings.
The Frenchman was certainly delighted with yesterday's excellent showing against a solid Newcastle side, although he did concede that his team need to rediscover their prolific scoring form of old. "I'm happy overall because we looked very solid from the first to the last," he said. "But we know we could have scored more." Arsenal should have opened their account as early as the third minute, when Thierry Henry controlled a 50-50 ball in central midfield, before embarking on a familiar run at goal. The Newcastle defence then decided to back off the Frenchman, allowing him plenty of time to find the unmarked Dennis Bergkamp inside the visitors' box. The Dutchman may not be as nimble as he once was, but his 33 years have in no way affected his wonderful footballing brain. Taking one touch to bring the ball inside on to his favoured right foot, he then stepped around two static defenders to set up a shooting opportunity. His right-foot curler evaded everyone, including the stranded goalkeeper Shay Given, before crashing off the post and rebounding to safety.
Newcastle did their best to respond, but their midfield was struggling to contain the rampant Vieira. This was his big return, after a three-match ban, and he did not disappoint. Arsenal are a different proposition with the long-legged Frenchman. His obvious tackling skills apart, he also offers the Gunners a much more direct outlet in the centre of midfield. "Gary Speed has just told me that he is the best midfielder he has ever faced," Sir Bobby Robson said after the game. "He was absolutely awesome for Arsenal today." And it was Vieira who should have opened the scoring when he rose above Andy O'Brien, but headed the corner wide. No matter. Wenger's men kept turning the screw and, on 25 minutes, got their reward.
Freddie Ljungberg collected possession deep inside his own half before launching a pinpoint cross-field pass to Henry. The Frenchman ran at Aaron Hughes and, again, the Newcastle left-back stood off and, again, the home player had time to pick his pass. Henry did not have to look far, laying off the simplest of balls to the on-rushing Oleg Luzhny. Under no pressure whatsoever the Ukraine international teed up Sylvain Wiltord for the simplest of tap-ins. Too easy.
Arsenal might have doubled their lead minutes later when Ljungberg rushed onto Vieira's exquisite long ball, but the Swede's lob hit the top of the crossbar. Six minutes before half-time, it was Arsenal's turn to be saved by the goal frame, as Hugo Viana's bullet-like right-foot shot from 25 yards was tipped on to the bar by the much-criticised David Seaman. "That little touch might have stopped us from getting a draw," Robson said.
No doubt influenced by Arsenal's first-half tactics and total domination, Newcastle decided to play a more direct game in the second period. The ploy had little effect, though, as Alan Shearer and Kieron Dyer were left isolated when in possession up front. Arsenal's central defensive partnership of Pascal Cygan and Sol Campbell were holding strong, while the midfielders, and substitute Robert Pires in particular, continued to threaten on the break.
It tells you everything about the lack of chances the visitors were creating that the Gunners' biggest scare came courtesy of an extraordinary Seaman blunder. Indeed, having picked up the ball, and under no pressure, the England keeper slipped and spilled it. Thankfully for him and Arsenal, he managed to get back on his feet and clear the danger.
Newcastle battled gamely until the final whistle, but were incapable of producing a single shot on target throughout the second half. "We tried our hardest," Robson explained, "but they always had an edge over us. I think we were just unlucky to have to play them at Highbury, because after losing their last three home games, Arsenal had a point to prove. They're back in business now."
Arsenal 1 Newcastle United 0
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 38,121
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