Our recent visits to Newcastle have been at least a bit dramatic. In 2010-11, our campaign headed downwards after we spilled a four-goal-lead in just 26 minutes of the second half.
That fixture had it all – Djourou’s injury after which he has yet to return to form in Arsenal shirt lead that led to Squillaci’s introduction at 4:0 to us, Diaby’s red card, two penalties converted by Joey Barton and Cheick Tiote’s unique long-range-goal that took two important points away from us.
Our next visit to St James Park was far less attractive goal-wise (0:0) but Joey Barton did us again – he provoked Gervinho and the Ivorian was sent off in his Premiership debut while Alex Song made a stupid stamp on Barton’s family jewels and earned a three-match-suspension. Our squad, depleted with injuries and suspensions, lost the next two matches against Liverpool and Manchester United respectively and conceded 10 goals in the process.
Last season, we went to St James Park in the last match of the season to confirm our Champions’ League place. The hosts put in a decent effort to nullify our attempts in the first half and it took a brilliant volley from Laurent Koscielny in the second to secure us three points and our Champions’ League spot for 2013-14.
It should be said that the recent reverse fixtures between the two teams haven’t been less dramatic. Newcastle won at the Emirates in 2010-11 thanks to Andy Carroll’s header and Laurent Koscielny was sent off in the last minute of injury-time. In 2011-12, Newcastle took the lead during the first half through Ben Arfa but Van Persie leveled the score in the next attack. We had witnessed shameful time-wasting from the visitors, especially from goalkeeper Tim Krul, but they were punished for that thanks to a brilliant attack that was both started and finished by Thomas Vermaelen in the fifth minute of injury-time. After that goal, Van Persie got into a row with Krul and suggested his compatriot to time-waste as much as he likes.
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Finally, last season, we won 7:3 but we had entered the last 20 minutes of the game with the score leveled at 3:3. Theo Walcott produced a fantastic performance and scored a hat-trick with his third goal being a Messi-sque miniature. Olivier Giroud made an impact after he had entered the pitch as a substitute as he scored two goals and hit the post in less than 20 minutes.
This visit to St James Park isn’t without importance. From many points of view, our victory may be one of the most important in the entire campaign. First of all, Newcastle are serious Top 4 contenders. They are just six points behind us and we would widen the margin with a victory. Secondly, most of our rivals haven’t had the best experience with Newcastle during the first half of the season. The Magpies have already beaten Spuds at White Hart Lane (1:0), Manchester United at Old Trafford (1:0) and Chelsea (2:0) at St James Park while Liverpool were held to a draw in Newcastle (2:2). Manchester City (4:0) and Everton (3:2) have beaten Newcastle as hosts which means that both teams have to visit the Magpies in the second half of the season.
Despite the fact they have conceded three or more goals on four occasions this season (Manchester City, Everton, Hull City, Swansea), Newcastle have been able to produce a bullet-proof defensive performance and Tim Krul, one of the best goalkeepers in the league, has been instrumental in those.
The Dutchman is one of the rare non-French influential players in Alan Pardew’s starting eleven. The Argentinian defender Fabricio Coloccini is another. The veteran is also the Newcastle captain. His partner in central defence is Mike Williamson. It’s interesting to note that the Englishman made his first appearance this season as the half-time substitute against Everton when the score-line was 3:0 and has never looked back. In the 6 matches Williamson wasn’t in the starting line-up, Newcastle had lost three and conceded 11. Since Williamson has been a regular starter instead of Yanga-Mbiwa, Newcastle have lost only two out of 12 matches and conceded 12. Mathieu Debuchy and Davide Santon are their full-backs. The Frenchman is, IMHO, better with his attacking duties than defending.
One of the 209,298 Newcastle players that have been connected with us in the last three years is a central midfielder Yohan Cabaye (or, if you ask Joe Kinnear, Yohan Kebab). The Frenchman is a lynchpin in the Magpies’ midfield and arguably the most important screw in Pardew’s machine. His absence proved it last season – Cabaye didn’t play in 12 games and Newcastle lost nine of them. Without the Frenchman Newcastle managed to beat only two relegated teams – Wigan and QPR. His most notable appearance was at the Old Trafford where he scored the second-half winner.
Moussa Sissoko was one of the rare players that had played well last term. He can score from the outside of the box so Szczesny must be careful in order to avoid upsets like the one against West Ham. Cheick Tiote returns to squad after suspension. The Newcastle enforcer has scored just one goal in the Premiership and that one was – as I’ve already written – one of the most expensive goal that we have conceded in the last few years. His passing range leaves a lot to be desired but he does a lot of dirty work for the team. Vurnon Anita is another midfield option for Pardew but I don’t think he’ll start against us given that he played against Stoke on Boxing Day.
When it comes to attack, Newcastle have some respectable assets. Loic Remy ended his goal-drought with a brace against Stoke City. He is on loan from QPR and one of the strikers that I’d like to see at Arsenal. He is quick and capable of shooting from both outside and inside the box. The Frenchman has scored ten goals this term including goals against the Spuds and Chavs so he’ll be the biggest threat to our ambitions.
His compatriot Yoan Gouffran has added six goals but he might get a break in favour of Papiss Cisse. The Senegalese striker has yet to find the form from 2011-12 when he was on fire. He is a pacey striker that can score from every position and if he finds his mojo, he might be one of the best strikers in the Premiership again.
atem Ben Arfa is arguably one of the most talented players in the England, one of those that sells tickets, and he might get a start on the right wing. His dribbling is probably second to none in the league (yes, Suarez and Agüero, I mean that!).
Of course, we are the favourites for this clash and that means the final outcome will depend mostly on our performance. If we keep our defensive solidity and our creative department reprise the performance from the match against West Ham, we should end up as winners at St James Park. There is a question of some rotation though. However I see the match against Cardiff City at home as the one that is more suitable for rotation and giving a rest for the key players.
Aaron Ramsey’s injury reduced Wenger’s options but Jack Wilshere is back which means he’ll probably take Ramsey’s place in the middle. Given the strength of Newcastle midfielders, Jack will have to give a responsible performance and help Flamini/Arteta. Santi Cazorla looked lively against West Ham and Mesut Özil should have picked a goal or an assist from that game. Given that we play against the opponents that are currently in the Top 5 in the league, both of them might start.
Theo Walcott played all 180 minutes this week but he’ll probably start against the Magpies as well. The same isn’t a safe bet for Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has been in a poor form when it comes to goal-scoring as he has scored just three goals and a lot of missed chances in the last 13 appearances in the Premiership. Given that and fixture congestion, Nicklas Bendtner might get another chance to sing a swan-song in our shirt. Lukas Podolski had a wonderful cameo against West Ham but Wenger himself has confirmed that he wants to treat Podolski with caution so I don’t believe that he will start against Newcastle.
All-in-all, if we win at St James Park, it will be a great way to end one of the best years in our recent history. Yes, we didn’t win a trophy but we managed to deliver another blow to Spuds by leapfrogging them in the final 10 matches of last season after they had a seven-point-cushion in March.
We didn’t lose any important players in the summer transfer window – au contraire, we re-signed Mathieu Flamini and broke our record to sign Mesut Özil, the best No.10 in the world, from Real Madrid. We have been top of the league since September albeit Liverpool and City taking over due to their earlier fixtures. We also have restored defensive solidity and thanks to that we have managed to beat both European champions (Bayern) and runners-up (Borussia Dortmund) in Germany this year without conceding in the process. Furthermore, we qualified from the Group of Death in the Champions’ League with 12 points.
So, let’s do it one more time this year and win at St James Park. It would be funny and nice to hear Joe Kinnear say after the game: “Arsenal deserved their victory as we couldn’t find an answer to their players like Luke Polanski, Matthew Flame-on-me and Mesut Brazil”, wouldn’t it?