Arsenal reclaimed their spot in the Champions League places after Mesut Ozil’s wonderful first-half volley secured a 1-0 victory over Newcastle at the Emirates.
The hosts were sweating over the fitness of star striker Alexandre Lacazette before this one, and Arsene Wenger was able to name him in the starting lineup ahead of his compatriot Olivier Giroud.
Promising youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles remained in the unfamiliar position of left wing back, while Jack Wilshere kept his place in midfield after Aaron Ramsey was ruled out for three weeks with a hamstring injury.
Newcastle’s Arsenal youth product Isaac Hayden was the focus of much of the pre-game coverage on his return to the Emirates – he started in centre midfield in place of the suspended Jonjo Shelvey following a late sending off against Everton in midweek.
Karl Darlow was at fault for the Everton goal, and he was replaced by Newcastle’s number one Rob Elliot.
Maitland-Niles had the first real chance of the game as he drove infield fantastically from the left hand side, riding three Newcastle challenges before driving the ball into the side netting.
Newcastle were playing well and were arguably the better side until a moment of magic in the 23rd minute. Florian Lejuene headed the ball to assumed safety, but Mesut Ozil was waiting on the edge of the box to volley home and make it 1-0 with a fantastic display of technique – Elliot stood no chance.
The difference between the two teams was how dangerous Arsenal looked going forward in comparison to the lack of threat in the final third shown by the Magpies.
The Gunners almost had a second goal 15 minutes later as Lacazette played a nice one-two with Ozil but the German’s dinked finish over Elliot was turned round the post by Lejeune.
After the restart, the ball ricocheted off Alex Iwobi’s shin towards the Newcastle goal, forcing Elliot down to his left smartly before palming away to prevent the Nigerian winger pouncing on his own rebound.
Newcastle grew into the game as it approached the hour mark. Ayoze cut the ball back to substitute Matt Ritchie but the Scotsman’s long range effort flew over the cross bar. Moments later, Jacob Murphy cut inside from the left and was afforded far too much space to get a low shot in at goal – the first effort that really troubled Petr Cech all day.
Arsenal almost found their elusive second goal with 15 minutes to go. Alexis Sanchez chipped the ball to the back post for Giroud – who had just replaced Lacazette much to Arsenal’s top scorers annoyance – who headed down to the penalty spot but Wilshere’s shot was straight at Elliot.
Newcastle continued to knock on the door as Joselu’s shot was blocked by Koscielny and Ayoze sent two efforts over the crossbar from promising positions. As long as Arsenal only had a one goal lead, the Toon kept believing they could nick something.
But that wasn’t to be. Although defeat for Newcastle sends them into the relegation zone, it was a far better performance compared to recent weeks and should offer Benitez hope going into the Christmas period.
One moment of magic split the two sides as Arsenal struggled to unlock a resolute Magpies backline, and as exciting as Ozil, Sanchez and Lacazette all being on the same pitch might be, they looked pretty bereft of ideas today. Either way, Wenger will be happy with his side’s return to the Champions League qualification spots.