LONDON: Arsenal, on the brink of slipping to third in the Premier League, struck twice in three dramatic late minutes to beat Cardiff 2-0 and thus hold to top spot.
Substitute Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott grabbed the goals which pushed the Gunners one point back ahead of Manchester City who had won, two hours earlier, at Swansea.
Arsenal had returned to the top of the table after last Sunday’s 1:0 win at Newcastle. That strengthened their belief that the revival owes more to their own talent and ambition than the erratic form of their title pursuers.
The holiday programme had proved costly for Arsenal: Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs and Mesut Özil (shoulder problem) all missed the Cardiff game through injury.
Yet their new-found consistency has seen them end the year having taken more points in the league (82 in 38 games) over the last 12 months than anyone else. The signing of Özil also showed they were no longer prepared to be also-rans.
Before kickoff manager Arsene Wenger underlined the point. He said: “We have had a little less pressure than other sides because everyone expects us to fail. But these players are hungry and the last three games have convinced me we can win the league.
“It is true that we had looked like a club with less ambition than others. We were in a position where we sold our good players, and [it looked like] we accepted being behind the teams who had invested a lot of money. That has changed, and that has strengthened our belief.”
Arsenal were last on top of the table at New Year in 2007-08, only to fade after a controversial 2-2 draw at Birmingham City in late February. But that season was not even as tight as this one.
Wenger added: “It is very difficult to say who are the main challengers. Two weeks ago, you would have all said it is Liverpool and then, two defeats later, they are six points adrift. It is very difficult to predict. Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea . . . I forget a few . . . you can count Everton, even Manchester United. You cannot rule them out.”
Lukas Podolski came in at centre-forward for the injured Giroud. This was his first league start since a 3-1 win at Fulham back on August 24. He returned with a point to prove about his own abilities: Arsenal had scored only 16 times in nine previous home league games.
At least Podolski could hardly have wished for a more promising occasion on which to return against a Cardiff side in turmoil after the holiday sacking of manager Malky Mackay.
Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, Bayern Munich’s 1999 nemesis for Manchester United, is favourite to take over. The Norwegian, current coach of Molde, flew in to London at lunchtime, and accompanied controversial Malaysian owner Vincent Tan to the match.
Arsenal showed surprisingly little urgency in a goalless first half. They had an early penalty claim refused when Jack Wilshere tumbled over a tackle by Chile defender Gary Medel. At the other end Per Mertesacker was shown a yellow card for a foul aimed at breaking up a Cardiff counter-attack.
Predictably, Arsenal stepped up the tempo after half-time and Wilshere, their busiest player, almost broke the deadlock with a shot which cannoned back into play off a post.
Wenger took that as a signal to make changes, bringing on Tomas Rosicky and Nicklas Bendtner in place of Mathieu Flamini and Podolski, who had worked hard without any luck but also without making any impression on the game.
The changes appeared to have an effect. Mertesacker should have scored with headers twice within two minutes around the hour but on both occasions he headed badly wide. Finally, in the last minute, Bendtner followed up to score the winner after a Bacary Sagna header was stopped magnificently by keeper Marshall.
Bendtner once courted derision by describing himself as “one of the best strikers in the world.” That remains open to question but unquestionably his goal may count as one of the most important of Arsenal’s season.
Cardiff had to come out of defence and duly left themselves wide open to a killing second from England winger Walcott.
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