Saturday came and went and with it saw us get a win at St. James Park against Newcastle. It is a ground that has been relatively good to us lately and I approached this match with a fair bit confidence, even if the commentators mention the infamous 4-4 draw every few minutes. Despite this, the squad was up for the challenge and we got a tough but deserved win.
After the match in Monaco mid-week, it was natural for Wenger to make a few changes to the lineup. Gabriel came into the defense, Ozil was left out due to illness and Chambers was selected in place of Bellerin. Overall the match wasn't too bad. We played well in the first half and Giroud kept his excellent scoring form going with two well-taken goals. We should have had a few more if Welbeck could have found his shooting boots and if Ramsey would have gotten out of Giroud's way. I was getting slightly irritated by him taking the ball and doing nothing with it when Giroud was in a good position. One instance in particular saw the ball come from the left and was destined to find Giroud open for his hat trick goal and instead Ramsey jumped in the way and scuffed the chance. 2-0 at halftime wasn't bad at all but I felt we left a lot on the table.
Sure enough the second half was what Newcastle needed to get on the scoreboard. An early goal saw us on the back foot for the rest of the match. You felt like another goal was coming but we did enough to keep the lead intact. Wenger brought on more defenders to get the 3 points and it worked but it was not the most comfortable second half of football we ever played. Clinical finishing in the first half would have been nice and would have kept us all from nearly having heart attacks.
It is easy to criticize the team for not scoring enough but it says a lot about the strength of our squad when we can get a lead and hold for the match. Newcastle put on the pressure for sure but it wasn't like they were creating the best chances. How many times in the past have we been unable to hold onto a lead? It is statistically impossible for us to win comfortably every game so we have to deal with a sluggish match every once in a while. Monaco was a draining experience. We came very close to advancing and that was tough mentally and physically. To come to a tough ground like St. James Park immediately following must have called for serious motivation and drive from the players. We are not out of the race for the title (although we would need a momentous collapse from Chelsea) and the FA Cup is still ours to lose.
We know that if we win our remaining games, we will have another chance at the Champions League next year and keep us in the running for the title. Winning at Newcastle was a great start to finishing our season strong. After the interlull, I expect the lineup to return to its roots as the squad is beginning to click. Alexis is no longer being forced to play the hero in every match and the burden has been lifted off of him. It doesn't take an expert analysis to see that his take is nearing empty but I think Wenger continues to play him every week because a team with a tired Alexis is still better than a team with no Alexis. Hopefully this international break will be good for the Chilean. He deserves a rest so he can come back and play like he did at the start of the season. Even while tired, Alexis tries to do everything he can to turn the match. His first season will go down as a successful one no matter what happens from now until the end.
Playing Alexis every week while Walcott doesn't even make the bench is an alarming sight. We all know that Walcott's contract is expiring and the club must make a decision on what to do with him. His injury a year ago has not done him any favors in the development department and we have a world class player in Alexis that starts ahead of him. Ox when healthy is also higher on the pecking order than Walcott and with Walcott on high wages it becomes clear that it is not economical to the club to continue to pay a player that kind of salary only to sit on the bench. We had that problem with Bendtner and we do not want that again. I am not saying that Walcott will go and make sexual advances to a taxi cab but having a player sitting on the bench with a large wage doesn't make a lot of sense. The injury was a tough one and it is quite possible that Wenger is still nursing him instead of rushing him back into the side. With Alexis, Ox and Cazorla all capable of playing that the right wing role, Wenger doesn't have to play him every week. This very well could be the reason for the lack of involvement on Walcott's part, or maybe the contract discussion isn't going as planned and the player may be somewhere else next season. I don't know and I won't pretend to know.
I like Walcott and I think he offers a lot to the club but we made his last deal on the back of losing the dutch skunk and I believe he was to be the main man in the aftermath of that debacle. In the following seasons, other players have stepped up and signings have been made, Giroud, Ozil, Alexis and Welbeck have severely reduced Walcott's importance to the squad. I remember a lot of fans calling for Walcott to start over Giroud a while back and you aren't hearing that now. The starting spot was his to lose and in his absence he lost it. Time will tell what happens to him but I have a feeling that he will not be with us next season. He is at a point in his career where he wants to be play every week and not sit on the bench. The club won't give him the same wages as Alexis or Ozil and he won't be playing every week. That is usually the makings of an exit.
The international break will give me a break from football so I won't be writing until after the Liverpool match. This is a must win for us as it will put us nine points clear of them. It would effectively end their top four hopes unless City or United stumble. Although if Gerrard continues to make petulant, schoolboy actions on the pitch, they won't make top four on their own. I won't gloat though because we haven't solidified our place yet. A win in a couple of weeks will make sure of that.
So until I write after the Liverpool, let's just hope that our players return from international duty injury free and we continue our winning ways.
Come on you Gunners!