Arsenal’s most important January signing is already in the squad, and is Nicklas Bendtner the man to lead them to 2014 glory?

Arsenal 2 Cardiff 0 – Late But Thoroughly Deserved

Cardiff 1

Arsenal left it dramatically late to beat Cardiff City 2-0 on New Year’s Day at a drenched Emirates Stadium. Goals from Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott were enough as the league leaders’ dominance eventually paid off having huffed and puffed at the visitor’s goal for the majority of the game.

Manager Arsene Wenger made a few forced changes to the side that beat Newcastle on Sunday due to injuries, with Nacho Monreal, Mikel Arteta and Lukas Podolski all starting, the latter in the much talked about central striker position with Olivier Giroud missing out.

The game started slowly as both sides got use to the wet conditions but Arsenal were in charge of possession from the off, with several attempted over the top balls for Walcott failing to come off.

The first real chance of the game came in the 13th minute. Arsenal nicked possession in Cardiff territory and Jack Wilshere clipped the ball into the area for Walcott at the far post, but he could only place it wide. This clicked Arsenal up a gear though; Bacary Sagna’s free kick struck the wall from a good position, Monreal flashed a decent cross across goal with no one on the end, and Santi Cazorla and Wilshere combined with the former dragging a shot wide from the edge of the area.

Wilshere, celebrating his 22nd birthday yesterday, was at the heart of most of Arsenal’s play and he should’ve been awarded a penalty as Gary Medel tripped him after linking up with Podolski, but nothing was given by referee John Moss.

Cardiff rarely got forward in the opening period, their first attempt coming off a shot by Jordon Mutch that required Wojciech Szczesny to be alert to save. Craig Noone had an attempt off a counter attack that went high and wide too, as the visitors seemed content to try and keep us at bay for as long as possible and hope for the best whenever they did venture out of their own half.

But Arsenal were the only side that looked likely to score, and Walcott should’ve done better after the half hour mark when he hit the side netting after a neat Cazorla pull back. Wilshere then had a shot blocked after combing with Walcott, and Podolski had the ball in the area right on half time, tried to spin away from a defender to find space for himself but ultimately lost possession when passing to Cazorla seemed the better option.

Cardiff 3

We started the second half brightly too and won a couple of corners following some precise build up play around the Cardiff area. Per Mertesacker’s looping header went wide off one, and the other caused a bit of a scramble but was cleaned up easily enough in the end by David Marshall in goal.

Cardiff appealed for a penalty following a Monreal handball that seemed to be outside the area and a touch ambitious, as again the visitors rarely threatened us as they looked to carry on containing the Arsenal pressure.

Arsenal were playing some neat build up play regularly around the area but there never seemed to be anyone on hand to put away the final ball, as both Wilshere and Walcott saw good crosses come to no avail. Wenger looked to correct this after the hour by bringing on both Nicklas Bendtner and Tomas Rosicky for the disappointing Podolski and Flamini.

It appeared to make an immediate threat as Bendtner played the Giroud role of holding the ball up well, providing the link up play required between midfield and attack, and being a target in the area too.

Arsenal’s pressure continued to increase as the game ticked on, and Mertesacker missed two glorious opportunities in quick succession off corners; the first being a free header wide from less than 10 yards, a minute later followed by a back post header that deflected off the post.

But for all of our pressure, we had barely tested Marshall in goal for Cardiff. Wilshere struck wide from the edge of the area, and Cazorla’s deflected shot resulted in an easy save for Marshall after a quick Arsenal counter attack. Wilshere then won a free kick on the edge of the area but Walcott’s shot dipped onto the roof of the net, proving to be a bit too close to goal to get it up and down.

Into the final ten minutes it remained goalless and Cardiff reminded us that they did actually have players who could attack, as Kim found himself in space on the edge of our area but shot over. And Steven Caulker hit one over having been up for a corner, latching on to a ball into our area as Arteta dallied on the edge of the box.

The tempo was ever increasing and Walcott won the ball for us and crossed brilliantly from the right but Bendtner couldn’t apply the finish, before Rosicky was then slipped through but Marshall came out to deny him from close range.

The pressure eventually told and Arsenal finally went 1-0 up in the 88th minute and it was Bendtner, who smashed it home from close range following up after Sagna forced a good stop by Marshall off Monreal’s cross from the left. The Dane was on hand for the rebound, injuring himself in the process, but the goal was just reward for 88 minutes of Arsenal dominance.

Thomas Vermaelen came on for Bendtner and fears of us just sitting deep and inviting Cardiff to attack us were short lived, as Walcott doubled the score line in stoppage time, coolly chipping the keeper inside the area after Wilshere’s beautiful little flick placed the ball perfectly in his path.

Cardiff 2

Szczesny denied a last second consolation for the visitors by quickly coming off his line to keep out Caulker off a free kick, and 2-0 it finished as Moss brought proceedings to an end.

As with the West Ham fixture on Boxing Day, it took us a while to reflect our territorial dominance on the score sheet, but our superior quality did finally tell and we were the deserving winners on the day.

The first 60 minutes were rather frustrating as despite a lot of good and neat build up play, we struggled to test Marshall in Cardiff’s goal. Largely this was because Podolski didn’t fit into our system at centre forward in the same manner in which Giroud or even Bendtner does.

I like Podolski as a player, but when we needed someone to be in the box getting on the end of the many great balls in that were coming from both flanks, he was often deeper or wide, usually having been in the build up play. If he was our left winger as he usually is, that’d be all fine. But when we needed someone to be on hand in the box he wasn’t, and only when Bendtner came on after the hour mark did that option actually become available to us.

Much has been made of Bendtner in recent weeks. He commands a criminally high wage at the Club in relation to what’s been little involvement or achievement as of late, but he’s shown that he can be of use to us in the past few occasions he’s been used. Although Podolski is clearly a better player, Bendtner works in our system more effectively as a centre forward and I’ve got no doubt he can again be effective for us before he ultimately departs in the summer.

His injury comes at a bad time, with Giroud missing the game yesterday and Podolski showing he’s probably not up to the role of centre forward, and with the January window now open you’ve got to assume that that’s the key area that Wenger will be looking to strengthen. Options might be limited but we have the money there to go out and bring in another player in that department, so it’ll be interesting to see what the manager does.

Elsewhere it was another fine display by Walcott, who has flown back into the Arsenal side with five goals in as many games. It was also another fantastic showing by birthday boy Wilshere, who was the driving force behind the majority of Arsenal’s attacking play as his recent improvements are only a good thing as he continues to get back to his best following that horrific injury spell.

The opening of the January window also means that players with six months left of their contract can begin to talk to other Club’s over possible Bosman transfers. One such player is Sagna, who again highlighted his importance to our side yesterday. Not just defensively but his desire to get on the end of Monreal’s cross before Bendtner’s equaliser had an “I’m getting on the end of this come hell or high water” feel, in a similar fashion to the goal he scored to start the comeback in the first of the 5-2’s against Spurs in 2012.

Sagna also won a key header in the build up play to our second, and his general presence and attitude on the pitch isn’t something we should give away lightly. There’s been talk of contract negotiations happening, and I hope this is one the club gets right and that we can tie him down to at least another year.

So it was a fine start to the 2014 calendar year, and tops off a decent Christmas period in which we picked up 10 points out of 12. This was the sort of game we may not have found a winning goal in in recent years, so a huge amount of credit to the players for never giving up and seeing it through. And also to the manager for his substitutions which added a different and match-winning dimension to our attacking play.

Next up we host Spurs in the FA Cup 3rd Round on Saturday, then we have a series of winnable League fixtures before things hot up again in February and March.

We set the bar incredibly high in 2013 and started 2014 in similar suit. If this is a sign of things to come, it could be quite a year but there’s plenty of work to be done yet.

Matt Littlechild

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