Arsene Wenger made four changes from the team which came from behind to win 3-1 away to West Ham on Thursday. Thomas Vermaelen was ruled out through illness but luckily Laurent Koscielny returned from injury to replace him and put Arsenal's strongest back four in place. I was delighted to see Koscielny back as his partnership with Per Mertesacker is the one which Arsenal's defensive stability is built on.
The biggest changes came in midfield where Mikael Arteta dropped to the bench and both Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil missed out through injury. Mathieu Flamini replaced Arteta with Tomas Rosicky replacing Ramsey and Jack Wilshere returning from suspension to take Ozil's role. Ramsey and Ozil have been the creative and goal scoring forces in Arsenal's midfield and it wasn't going to be easy without both of them.
Arsenal dominated early on and Newcastle seemed content to get very tight and get all of their team behind the ball. It meant there was very little room for Arsenal to play in and they found it difficult to create any genuine chances. There were a couple of long range efforts and a couple of misplaced passes at crucial times, but Arsenal never really threatened to score in the first half.
Newcastle created very little themselves until a poor pass from Koscielny at the end of the half let them in and Arsenal managed to put the ball out for a corner. From the corner Mike Williamson headed against the Arsenal bar much to my relief and that of the Arsenal players too. Half time arrived shortly after that and the sides were still level with neither team really deserving to be ahead.
The second half followed a similar pattern with Newcastle defending deep and Arsenal failing to break them down. The chances were few and far between at either end until midway through the half when Arsenal made the breakthrough. They were awarded a rare free kick after yet another Cheick Tiote foul and Olivier Giroud glanced Theo Walcott's delivery past Tim Krul for the crucial goal.
It was almost 2-0 shortly after that when Wilshere played Walcott in and he just got a touch which Krul managed to save and it came back to Walcott. He somehow managed to get his effort on target, but Mathieu Debuchy had scrambled back onto the line and blocked his effort on to the bar. The rebound fell to Giroud but his effort was so bad it didn't even manage to go out for a throw.
Newcastle then started to push forward and they brought players on to get on the end of high balls played forward early. Arsenal defended very well though and there was only one real scare which was self inflicted. Wojciech Szczesny was too casual with a clearance which hit Loric Remy in the face and rebounded goalwards, but thankfully it trickled wide.
Newcastle tried to throw the kitchen sink at Arsenal but it was to no avail with Mertesacker and Koscielny standing firm in front of all comers. The value of their partnership in the centre of Arsenal's defence cannot be overestimated and it was great to see both of them fit and playing together again. The final whistle arrived and Arsenal had held on to their slender lead to regain top spot in the league.
Before the game I had hoped to see some more consistency from the referee after so many wrong decisions had gone against Arsenal in their last few games. It wasn't to be though with Williamson somehow avoiding a yellow card for a very bad challenge on Giroud with a foul not even given and Giroud left with a cut to his foot. Tiote committed so many fouls throughout the game that they could easily have added up to two yellow cards, but he didn't even get one.
I was far from happy with the standard of refereeing but it was nothing compared to the decisions which went Chelsea's way in the later game against Liverpool. Chelsea won yet again to move two points behind Arsenal, but the referee had an awful game and Liverpool can rightly feel very aggrieved today. Yet again Chelsea should have been reduced to 10 or maybe even nine men and a clear cut penalty for Liverpool wasn't given. I thought Chelsea set out to put the boot in and the referee did nothing to stop them and they were rewarded with the three points.
Arsenal are top of the league again though and they face struggling Cardiff at home on Wednesday followed by an FA Cup game at home to Spurs. The injuries are piling up again with Kieran Gibbs having to go off to add to the list of those injured and the squad strength is going to be tested in those two games. They are two must win games for Arsenal to keep them where they want to be at the top of the league and to get the upper hand over Spurs and put them out of the FA Cup.
Hopefully Ozil will be back for the Spurs game and I have a feeling Giroud will sit out the game with Cardiff to rest him and protect the foot he hurt. Nicklas Bendtner could well be asked to lead the attack in that game and hopefully he can show the enthusiasm he showed when he came on for the last 10 minutes yesterday. He is still a very good player despite all of his problems and he might still have a part to play for Arsenal as they look to continue their challenges on all fronts.
That's it for today.
See you tomorrow.