Arsenal entered Newcastle needing a victory to reclaim their spot at the top of the table. After the final whistle blew, the Gunners left Newcastle with those points in hand and the top spot secured as 2016 comes to an end and the new year, and the second half of the campaign, begin. Their 0-1 victory over Newcastle was hardly the perfect game, but the match did accurately reflect both clubs’ position in the league: Arsenal stand at the top but on very shaky ground while Newcastle showed that they can play with the best but they need to improve if they want to do more than trip up other clubs trying to climb to the top of the table.
The match, in fact, was quite ugly. From the first half action, it seemed both sides would have settled for a point, which is something you don’t like to see either from a home side or from the league leader. Toon boss Alan Pardew packed his midfield with five players. Gunner boss Arsene Wegner had to make due without Aaron Ramsey, his top goal-scorer, and Mezut Ozil, both out due to injury.
It wasn’t until the very end of the first half that things picked up with Newcastle on an attack that failed to produce a goal but left the crowd hopeful going into halftime. It was Arsenal who broke the lock in the 65th minute when Theo Walcott sent a free kick into the box that Olivier Giroud got his head on and tapped into the net. From there it was a chess match between the two longest serving managers in the Premier League, managers who have both praised and pushed one another.
Granted, it was an ugly chess match. Wegner sent five men to the back while Pardew upped the attack, sending Hatem Ben Arfa to the front. Ultimately, it was to no avail, however, the last twenty minutes were exciting despite the sense that the two teams were running an attacking and defending drill in front of fifty thousand paying customers. Perhaps both clubs deserved a point, but the team at the top of the league got all three while Newcastle slipped to the eighth spot. Still, Newcastle fans have reason to be hopeful for the coming year and the second half of the campaign. As recently as October, Toon fans feared relegation, now their biggest fear is a January yard sale from owner Mike Ashley. On the glass is half-full side, if the Magpies can keep their good form, Toon fans may enjoy a second-half run for a spot in Europe.
Despite being on top, there’s plenty to worry about for Arsenal fans. While they have as good a shot as any for winning the league, there are plenty of “any” competing to win the league. Half-way through the season, the point battle is tight: Arsenal 42, Manchester City 41, and Chelsea 40. Everton and Liverpool are nipping at their heels as well with 37 and 36 points. Just below them are the defending champions who have the cash to improve come January. There’s also post-Bale and post-AVB Tottenham.
It’s a long way until May. In a neck and neck race, there’s room for a slip up or two. But there are a bunch of necks in this race, a bunch of feet ready to trample. To lose or to draw is to concede your spot, at least until the next week when you can try to grab it back, until, of course, there are no next weeks.