Arsenal fans hoping for a repeat of their festive thrills against Newcastle

Posted by James McNicholas

Theo WalcottPA PhotosTheo Walcott was superb as Arsenal beat Newcastle 7-3 in a remarkable game.

The Christmas television schedules are inundated with festive repeats. It can become monotonous. However, few fans would complain if Arsenal and Newcastle were able to serve up a carbon copy of their meeting exactly a year ago.

On the Dec. 29, 2012, the Gunners triumphed over the Magpies in a 7-3 thriller. Newcastle pegged back Arsenal’s lead three times before Arsenal ran riot, with Theo Walcott grabbing a hat trick and the match ball.

Although that tie took place at the Emirates Stadium rather than St. James’ Park, this fixture does seem to have a habit of producing plenty of goals. Arsenal fans still have bitter memories of the Toon Army’s four-goal fightback in February 2011.

Arsenal travel to face a Newcastle side in prolific form; Alan Pardew’s team have scored in 15 of their last 16 league games.

However, the last meeting between these two teams was a far tighter affair, and one Arsenal fans will remember fondly. On the final day of the 2012-13 season, a solitary Laurent Koscielny goal was enough for Arsenal to beat Newcastle and secure their place above Spurs in the top four.

According to Arsene Wenger, Koscielny might be fit to try and keep a rampant Newcastle at bay. Thomas Vermaelen has proved to be an able deputy during Koscielny’s absence, but Arsene Wenger may have to be ruthless and cast his captain aside once more: there is no doubt that Koscielny and Per Mertesacker remain Arsenal’s best central defensive pairing.

While Wenger will surely want to have his best back four on the field, there may also be changes further upfield.

One switch will be enforced: Aaron Ramsey picked up a thigh injury in the victory over West Ham, and may well be absent for the next few weeks. Although Ramsey’s spectacular form has dropped off a little in recent matches, his absence will still be keenly felt. Even when he is not at his best, he is still capable of producing moments of magic. In each of Arsenal’s last two games, Ramsey showed wonderful vision and technique to produce the most penetrative pass of the game.

Arsenal will hope the creative baton is picked up by Jack Wilshere, returning from a two-match suspension. Wilshere should be well rested and eager to make amends for his needless absence. With Ramsey on the sidelines, the Englishman will also get an opportunity to play in his favoured central midfield role. As we enter a World Cup year, Wilshere will be keen to seize his chance to shine.

Arsenal may also opt to call on a rested Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky didn’t play a single minute at Upton Park, and could be asked to bring his characteristic verve and dynamism to a weary Arsenal midfield.

Speaking of weariness, Arsene Wenger will be deliberating whether or not to finally rest Mesut Ozil. Ozil is unaccustomed to the rigours of the festive schedule, having previously played in countries where clubs are handed a break at this point in the season. Wenger knows he will have to rest Ozil in one of the next three games. With Santi Cazorla finally hitting form and Rosicky raring to go, could this be the time when Ozil gets a mini-winter break of his own?

One man certain to start is Theo Walcott. The winger has four goals in his last three games, and will be keen to repeat his hat trick heroics of 2012-13. Wenger must also decide whether or not Lukas Podolski is fit enough to start a game for the first time since August.

Even if Podolski is sharp enough to play from the outset, Wenger may opt to keep faith with Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has failed to score in his last six games. Although he looks tired, being left out of this crucial game could prove a heavy blow to his already wavering confidence.

The prize at stake for Arsenal is the opportunity to head in to the new year as Premier League leaders. They haven’t achieved that feat since 2007-08 -- their last serious title challenge. While the only time when it really matters to be top is in May, leading the league at the halfway point would represent a significant psychological boost to a team still fighting to prove their credentials as potential title-winners.


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