Vol. 5 Num 215 Fri. December 31, 2004  

Vieira ensures happy New Year

Arsenal will enter the New Year five points adrift of Premiership leaders Chelsea after a hard-fought and somewhat fortunate 1-0 win over Newcastle here on Wednesday.

A deflected long-range strike from skipper Patrick Vieira in first-half stoppage time proved enough to secure three precious points for the champions.

It was an outcome that was harsh on Newcastle, who dominated proceedings for long periods in front of their own supporters and were desperately unlucky not to be awarded a penalty shortly before Vieira's crucial goal.

The Arsenal captain hailed his side's performance as proof that the champions would push Chelsea all the way to the wire in what promises to be a tight three-way title battle following Manchester United's return to form.

"It was the perfect time to score and in second half we defended really well," Vieira said.

"There are still 19 games and every single game we play is going to be like tonight. But if we play like that and fight like that until the end of the season we will have a good chance.

"We just have to believe in ourselves like we did in the last few games. I'm sure it is is going to be really tight."

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who revealed that Vieira had been a doubt for the match after a bout of gastroenteritis, said the win had demonstrated the character of his squad.

"I'm very confident the desire and hunger of the team is stronger than ever and we saw that tonight," the Frenchman said.

"We know it is going to be very tight at the end of the season. The most important thing for us it be in the right frame of mind with the right desire and then let the best team win."

Newcastle had kicked off without both skipper Alan Shearer and Patrick Kluivert.

But Shola Ameobi and Craig Bellamy quickly demonstrated their determination to prove themselves worthy of being regarded as more than understudies by giving the visiting defence some serious problems.

Ameobi in particular was proving a handful and it took a superb stop from Manuel Almunia, diving to his right, to deny the England under-21 striker after he had raced clear of Sol Campbell to unleash a left-foot shot from the edge of the area.

Ameobi also contributed at the other end, heading Campbell's net-bound header off the line. Robin van Persie then provided Given with his first serious test of the evening with a well-struck effort from distance that the Newcastle goalkeeper palmed away.

Arsenal's period of pressure proved short-lived however and the home fans were justified in their indignation at being denied a penalty when Ashley Cole, caught off balance by Jermaine Jenas's diagonal pass into the box, raised his arm to intercept the ball before it reached Bellamy.

The England left-back admitted afterwards that the ball had struck his hand, although he denied he had been fortunate not to have conceded a spot-kick.

"At the end of the day, it is the referee's decision," Cole said. "It did hit my hand but he (Bellamy) pushed me first -- sometimes it goes for you and sometimes it doesn't."

Newcastle's misfortune was compounded in the final seconds of the opening period.

A careless throw-in from Olivier Bernard allowed Arsenal to regain possession inside their hosts' territory.

Still there seemed little danger as Vieira attempted to dink a pass

towards Thierry Henry in the box. Titus Bramble was able to block comfortably but rather than snuffing out the danger the Newcastle centre-back simply teed up Vieira for a speculative shot at goal that took a deflection and looped over Given.

Arsenal could scarcely claim to have displayed championship form but Wenger will take heart from the efficiency with which his side closed the game down in the second period to preserve their lead.