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Olivier Giroud keeps Arsenal in the hunt for the top four

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rsenal’s visibly fatigued team huffed and puffed but eventually ground out a morale boosting victory over a hard fighting Newcastle side at St. James Park on Saturday afternoon.

It was a game the Gunners simply had to win in order to solidify their grip on third place ahead of a testing tie at home to Liverpool which will take place immediately after the international break.

Olivier Giroud showed once again what an under-appreciated cog he is in the Arsenal machine by coming up with two brilliantly dispatched goals in a first half which the Gunners dominated without being clinical enough to bury all the chances that were presented to them.

The Frenchman is in excellent form and his goals meant he has now scored 13 Premier League goals and 17 overall, despite the fact that he missed the first three months of the season owing to injury. His excellent hold up play also brought others into play and ensured that Arsenal were coasting by the time referee Mike Jones brought proceedings to a halt for the end of the first half.

The second forty-five minutes kicked off with Newcastle firmly seizing the initiative and forcing Arsenal further and further towards the edge of their penalty area. The Gunners cause was not aided by Francis Coquelin sustaining another blow to the face resulting in a nosebleed. The Arsenal midfielder – who otherwise had an excellent game – was partly culpable for Newcastle’s goal, neglecting to track Moussa Sissoko’s late run and finish past David Ospina in the Arsenal goal.

Then followed a barrage of Newcastle attacks as the Arsenal midfield, with Santi Cazorla in particular showing visible signs of exhaustion, and the Arsenal midfield looking repeatedly close to collapse. With Aaron Ramsey eschewing his recent run of more disciplined performances in midfield, and choosing to gallop forward at every opportunity, the Gunners were finding it increasingly difficult to retain possession as the Newcastle onslaught gained in ferocity.  Some much needed personnel changes ensued with the experience of Tomáš Rosický and to a lesser degree Mathieu Flamini helping to shore up the Arsenal resistance and restore at least a modicum of serenity to Arsenal’s rearguard action as they managed to see out the threat of Newcastle in the dying stages.

This was an incredibly hard fought encounter from an Arsenal perspective, but the three points gained here should go a long way to ensuring that Arsenal remain firmly in the driver’s seat in their chase for a top four slot. With the game between Manchester United and Liverpool certain to result in at least one of their closest rivals for Champions League places dropping points, it was imperative that Wenger’s charges had to secure all three points here.

Olivier Giroud showed once again that when the chips are down he can be relied upon to deliver the goods. The Frenchman has been much maligned by a section of the Arsenal support since his arrival in 2012, but in a team with plenty of brilliant aesthetes, he provides an excellent contrast by offering a physical presence and a useful focal point around which much of Arsenal’s slick approach play can more readily thrive.

The game was also notable for some assured defending with new signing Gabriel forming an effective partnership with Laurent Koscielny to present plenty of promise for the future. His undoubted pace means that it’s more difficult to find space in behind the Arsenal defence and he seemed to have no problems communicating with his fellow defenders or indeed with David Ospina, who also had an outstanding game in goal.

With this game now out of the way and three points secured albeit in physically tasking circumstances, Arsène Wenger will be hoping that the upcoming international break does not result in his players suffering any unwanted aftereffects and that there are no injuries ahead of what promises to be a difficult game against Liverpool in a fortnight.

For now, however, the Gunners can bask in the satiated glow of an excellent run that has seen them amass 24 points out of a possible 27 in their last nine Premier League games and seen them lose only once since the new year. If they can keep up this kind of form, who knows how far up the table they can climb between now and the end of the season?

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