Giroud rediscovers golden touch to send Arsenal top
Newcastle Utd 0 Arsenal 1
There is a peculiar beauty in 1-0 away wins at the end of ugly games in bleak midwinter played a long way from home, so Arsenal should be proud of this.
They did not play particularly well. Their football was far from flowing, their attacking game stunted and stilted by a Newcastle side set up as though they were the away team, their game plan limited to containment and counter-attacks.
But Arsenal won and they did so with the key qualities of champions: resilience, organisation, spirit and a touch of class when they needed it.
Manchester City were praised for grinding out a 1-0 home win over Crystal Palace 24 hours earlier, yet this win for Arsenal, away from home against an in-form Newcastle side pushing for European football again, is a far more impressive feat.
They may yet falter, they may come up short when it comes to the crunch time of the run-in, but this Arsenal team are not soft, flaky or any of the other slights that have been directed at them over the course of their eight-and-a-half-year wait for some silverware.
The fact their goal came from a set-piece will also bring strange joy to supporters who are sick of being told that their club do not possess the players to maintain their title challenge, the mentality of champions or a top-class centre-forward to score the goals needed to fend off their rivals.
Oliver Giroud had gone seven games without a goal before this trip to Tyneside, but, capitalising on some poor marking from Newcastle centre-back Mike Williamson, he timed his run brilliantly to meet Theo Walcott's chipped free-kick with a glancing header past Tim Krul. It was his 11th goal of the season.
Giroud should have scored a second five minutes later, but this time he was off balance and shanked a first-time shot horribly wide after Mathieu Debuchy had cleared Walcott's chip off the line.
It might have been a costly mistake. Newcastle had lost only once at home in the league this season, have beaten Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham since October and are capable of building up a frightening head of steam when they are roared on by a partisan home crowd.
But Arsenal, with German international Per Mertesacker dominant, defended so well in the closing stages that they rarely looked in trouble. Even a late aerial bombardment was repelled with ease.
The closest Newcastle came to equalising came when Wojciech Szczesny kicked a clearance into the face of Loic Remy and the ball rolled a couple of feet wide of his empty net.
Newcastle did skim the crossbar in first-half stoppage time when Debuchy's looping header from a Yohan Cabaye corner dropped on top of Jack Wilshere on the line after Szczesny had tipped a fierce long-range shot from Moussa Sissoko over the bar.
Before that, Arsenal were confined to long-range shots, while Newcastle's lack of offensive ambition left Remy isolated and ineffective.
This had looked like being one of the great fixtures of the festive period between two attacking teams who were both looking to prove they can maintain their excellent starts to the season, but it was, entertainment-wise, a massive anti-climax.
It had all the ingredients for a classic Premier League clash, but somebody must have read the recipe book wrong because this was a bland affair, played predominantly in a congested midfield.
Newcastle could not get out of their half for the first 10 minutes, but Arsenal struggled to get in behind their defence.
The home side improved and had the best chances of the first half, but the fact they failed to worry Szczesny with either summed things up.
First, Debuchy's run into the area from right-back was spotted by Cabaye, who delivered a perfect ball over the top of the Gunners' rearguard.
Unfortunately, as Debuchy's eyes lit up, his control failed him and the ball ran harmlessly away for a goal-kick.
Sissoko should probably have done better too with a cross to the far post from Yoan Gouffran, but his header went straight to the Arsenal goalkeeper.
Little changed after the break until Newcastle's defence switched off while defending a free-kick conceded when Cheick Tiote clipped the heels of Santi Cazorla.
Williamson was supposed to be marking Giroud and has to take the lion's share of the blame, but both Fabricio Coloccini and Davide Santon got underneath the ball as it floated into the middle of the area.
"The defending at a set-piece was very disappointing," Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, said.
"We have not really been guilty of that this season and we have to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"I'm disappointed for the players and our fans because I don't think we did much wrong, but we've got a defeat against our name.
"It was a very even, keenly contested game.
"My overall feeling is that we've come out on the wrong side because a few breaks went against us in terms of decisions, and that was probably the difference.
"But we have 33 points, we're seventh in the table and I think we can better that in the second half of the season." (© Daily Telegraph, London)