Olivier Giroud’s 11th goal of the season sealed Arsenal’s return to the top of the Premier League courtesy of a hard-fought 1-0 win at Newcastle on Sunday.
The Frenchman’s 65th-minute header, his first goal for more than a month, proved decisive as Arsene Wenger’s men were forced to sweat for a victory that rounds off an impressive 2013 for the north London club.
Arsenal racked-up 82 points in the calendar year – the best in the English top-flight – and the character they showed in withstanding the sustained challenge from an in-form Newcastle side will stand them in good stead as they attempt to end their long trophy drought.
The hosts almost snatched a late draw when Wojciech Szczesny’s attempted clearance cannoned off French forward Loic Remy to bounce just a yard wide of goal with the Arsenal keeper stranded, but Newcastle tasted defeat for only the second time in 10 games to dent their hopes of a top six finish.
As they look down on the rest of the Premier League having regained pole position from Manchester City, Arsenal will no doubt reflect that seven of the last nine teams to head the division going into the New Year have gone on to lift the title in May.
However, the Gunners are a notable recent exception when they trailed in third despite topping the table at this stage of the season six years ago.
Mesut Ozil headed Arsenal’s growing list of key absentees, the German international joining Aaron Ramsey (thigh) on the sidelines with a minor shoulder problem that is expected to keep the midfielder out for at least another game.
Also missing were Thomas Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal, who were both unwell.
With Mathieu Flamini prompting the visitors from in front of the back four in a 4-1-4-1 formation, Arsenal enjoyed the majority of possession without being able to translate it into chances.
It allowed Newcastle, who showed just one change as Cheick Tiote returned from suspension in place of Hatem Ben Arfa, to end the half strongly, with Moussa Sissoko forcing Szczesny to produce a fingertip save as the Frenchman unleashed a powerful 20-yard drive when following up as Yohan Cabaye’s shot was blocked.
From the resulting Cabaye corner, Mathieu Debuchy’s looping far-post header bounced down off the crossbar, with Mike Williamson unable to convert the rebound in a major let-off for the visitors.
Cabaye combined several times with Debuchy to cause problems for Wenger’s side, and with better control, the latter would have been clean through on goal as he raced onto a pinpoint 40-yard pass from his former Lille teammate.
Debuchy also ought to have done better when volleying wide as Cabaye’s raking free-kick found him in space just inside the area.
Arsenal’s ball retention and distribution, as ever, was pleasing on the eye, although with Newcastle’s back four again impressing, the Gunners created only half chances before the interval.
Tomas Rosicky aimed a 20-yard effort straight at Tim Krul at the culmination of a four-man move, before Santi Cazorla cut in from the right to force a low save from the Dutchman with a crisp left-foot shot.
Newcastle threw on Ben Arfa just after the hour in a bold attacking move, but it was Arsenal who took the lead within minutes of the Frenchman’s introduction.
Theo Walcott floated a free-kick into the area where Giroud, evading his marker Williamson, sent a glancing header past the exposed Krul from 10 yards.
Walcott almost doubled the advantage soon after, the England forward’s first attempt blocked by the legs of Krul, before Debuchy kept the Arsenal forward’s follow-up out with a spectacular goal-line clearance.
It wasn’t to prove a costly miss, as the visitors held out with relative ease – Ben Arfa firing wastefully into the side-netting in their biggest scare – to record a victory that could prove key when the title is decided in May.