Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff City
1 – 0 Bendtner (88)
2 – 0 Walcott (90)
Frustrated for most of the afternoon, Arsenal struck twice in the dying minutes to secure the points necessary to return to the top of the Premier League. Manchester City applied the pressure with a 3 – 2 win at Swansea and with Chelsea’s win at St Mary’s, anything but a win would have seen Arsenal drop to third. Arsène has pointed to the volume of games and the problems that brings as something the club has to overcome; they did so with a win consistent with the Yuletide performances as 2013 drew to a close.
A lethargic first half with chances squandered in appalling conditions, was met with an improved tempo in the second with chances squandered in appalling conditions until Bendtner and Walcott settled matters. Victory came at a cost with Nicklas Bendtner likely to be missing for ‘weeks’ putting pressure on Olivier Giroud to recover his fitness more swiftly than might have been expected before kick-off.
Bendtner had surprisingly been left out of the starting XI as Arsène opted for Lukas Podolski instead. For whatever reasons – and a lack of match fitness combined with the conditions would not have helped – the German was ineffective, he made way for the Dane just past the hour. Combined with the arrival of Tomas Rosicky, it signalled the pressure being ratcheted up with the Cardiff goal remaining intact through a mix of luck, grit and poor finishing. Chief culprit was Per Mertesacker; two headers, getting closer each time with the first a couple of feet wide, followed by a similar effort glancing the same post which Jack Wilshere had thundered a shot against earlier.
Wilshere’s sleight of foot set Walcott free for the second and the striker deserves credit for not letting his first half missed chances prey on his mind. At the time of scoring he had reverted to his desired role of central striker. I wonder if this will be something Arsène considers for the weekend’s cup tie? He appears reluctant to use Akpom, presumably on the grounds of youth. Acknowledging that Podolski needs match time is one thing in a home game against a team struggling in the Premier League is one thing, it is an altogether different proposition for an FA Cup tie that has added spice for supporters.
The conditions made a flowing match impossible; Arsenal responded to that by digging in and working hard to create their openings. Wenger believes the attitude was the key to the result,
We have a good togetherness. The players come on with the right attitude, which makes the difference in a title race. If you don’t have that you have no chance to do it. We have to take care of that spirit and show it in every single game. They showed the resilience and intelligence not to make a mistake at the back and continued to go forward.
They were offered plenty of opportunity to go forward, Cardiff were very happy to cede possession and ultimately that strategy cost them any chance of points. There were moments, of course, Szczesny made a good save from Mutch whilst earlier in the season, Nacho Monreal would have been penalised. As it was, referees have moved in the opposite direction, reluctant to make decisions, with Arsenal denied two penalties when Jack Wilshere was clearly impeded. He and Santi Cazorla prompted and probed throughout, effervescent in their creative roles yet for all the openings, Marshall was relatively untroubled.
I am not sure Arsène will be overly concerned by that. The weather impacted on some of the finishing and Cardiff were obdurate at the back, willing to throw their bodies in the way of any shots. Equally, he was without his first choice striker; he is now without whichever choice Bendtner is. Whilst the media are already tying that to the new transfer window, the Dane’s injury cannot surely be the catalyst for action. With less than a month remaining, any targets will have been identified long ago and the club will have a clear picture on their availability.
The Dane is free to talk to others yet Arsène believes the player wants to stay at the club,
It is January 1 so we cannot stop him [talking to clubs abroad] but he says he wants to stay here. If he is focused on staying with us and his job, he is a great striker.
It would be a huge turnaround for a player who categorically stated he did not want to play for the club again, albeit some time ago. I am not sure that the manager is convinced by that or the player himself. Talk of Bendtner’s potential seems strange for a striker who is 26 in a fortnight’s time. He is surely of an age where potential must have been realised by now? A little flannel will do wonders for making a want-away player feel wanted whilst he still has a purpose to fill.
Monreal was outstanding yesterday, reliable in defence but a clever supporting asset in attack and his cross laid on the opening goal. That Bacary Sagna was the challenging player for the header indicates the intelligence the pair displayed, creating width on both flanks. It is this which, particularly in Sagna’s case, cannot be readily replaced. Carl Jenkinson will hopefully have taken on board the attacking lesson he witnessed today.
The FA Cup normally sees Arsène field a weakened side but circumstances might preclude him from following that tradition. Arsenal don’t have the choice of players for him to do that and unusually compared to the past, there is another eight-day gap until the visit to Aston Villa a week on Monday. He has a couple of days to ponder his options and who knows, a miraculous recovery or two might take place in that spell.