LONDON, January 2 – Arsenal moved two points clear at the top of the Premier League table after Laurent Koscielny’s second-half winner secured an unconvincing 1-0 win over Newcastle United on Saturday.
The Frenchman’s 72nd-minute winner masked a stuttering display, but if the sign of an effective team is that they win even when below their best, then Arsenal justified their status as favourites to take the title.
Mesut Ozil, featured on the programme cover celebrating his goal in the 2-0 win against Bournemouth in the final match of 2015, did his best to inspire his team-mates again, but Arsenal were flat and uninspired.
However, though lacking their usual fluency and looking vulnerable once again in defence, they rode their luck and dug out a victory while Leicester City, level on points at kick-off, could only draw with Bournemouth.
Newcastle, who had conceded 14 goals in their previous three visits to the Emirates Stadium, had the majority of the chances this time, but found Petr Cech unbeatable. They remain in the relegation zone.
After a minute’s applause for former Newcastle goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek, who died on December 29, Arsenal gave Rob Elliot, his successor, an easy first half, their midfield misfiring and their final ball often inaccurate.
A perfect example was a diagonal pass from Theo Walcott towards Olivier Giroud that almost sent the France striker through on goal, but was just too close to Newcastle captain Fabricio Coloccini, who intercepted.
When Arsenal gave them the ball, the visitors seized any chance to venture forward and after 15 minutes Cech had to dive to his right to parry a header by Georginio Wijnaldum from a right-wing cross by Moussa Sissoko.
Aleksandar Mitrovic returned the loose ball into the centre, but Jack Colback’s scooped effort was easily held by Cech.
That made the crowd uneasy, and they were worried again after 25 minutes when Ayoze Perez shot a foot over Cech’s crossbar from an angle.
– Mitrovic miscues –
Just before half-time, Cech had to save twice, first from an overhead kick by Mitrovic as Hector Bellerin’s attempt at a clearing header dropped short and then after Koscielny miskicked, the goalkeeper rushing out to block from Wijnaldum.
The first-half statistics showed four efforts on target by Newcastle and none from Arsenal and it was five by the Magpies soon after half-time as Cech raced out of his goal again to smother a shot from Wijnaldum.
Moments later, the Czech could only watch as Mitrovic volleyed wide from Perez’s flick when scoring looked easier.
Arsenal’s first shot on target arrived in the 50th minute, Elliot saving Aaron Ramsey’s effort from Ozil’s pass.
The Arsenal fans, to their credit, continued to back their team, preferring to take out their frustrations on referee Anthony Taylor for what they regarded as leniency towards time-wasting by Newcastle.
And finally, in the 72nd minute, they had the reward for their patience.
As Ozil’s corner curved in from the right, Giroud missed his first attempt at a header, but won the second, and with the ball looping towards goal, Koscielny stole in behind Perez to volley home his third goal of the season.
Nacho Monreal almost doubled the lead with a fierce shot that was blocked by a knot of defenders, while Mitrovic headed onto the roof of the net as Newcastle looked for an equaliser.
Ramsey came closer to giving the score an even more misleading look late on, but after dancing past two defenders, he curled his shot wide with only Elliot to beat.