Nicklas Bendtner saves Arsenal from New Year's Day hangover

Posted by James McNicholas

LONDON -- As Nicklas Bendtner left the pitch, supported by two physiotherapists, his ears were pricked by an unfamiliar sound: the Arsenal fans singing his name. Bendtner bailed out Arsenal against Cardiff, instigating a 2-0 win, and in doing so kept the Gunners top of the Premier League table.

Prior to the game, Arsenal were facing something of an injury crisis. At Arsene Wenger's prematch press conference, he revealed the Gunners could be missing as many as 12 players from their first-team squad.

In reality, the situation wasn't quite as bad as Wenger feared. Nacho Monreal recovered from a bout of sickness, and Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky all came through late fitness tests, although the latter made only the substitutes bench.

- Late show returns Arsenal to top

The big question was how Arsenal would cope without Olivier Giroud. The French striker had missed just one Premier League game all season, but a cut foot acquired against Newcastle ruled him out of the clash with Cardiff.

The answer came in the shape of Lukas Podolski, as Wenger handed the German his first start since August. Podolski had impressed when he came on as a substitute in the Boxing Day fixture with West Ham, and he was afforded the chance to make a case for regular first-team inclusion.

Bendtner may have felt a little unlucky to be left out. He put in a hard-working cameo during the win at Newcastle and is a more obvious like-for-like replacement for Giroud's robust style. However, Bendtner needn't have worried: His moment would come.

The Arsenal fans greeted the return of Podolski with a hearty cheer, but any merriment was short-lived. The first half was a drab affair, as gray as the skies above the Emirates Stadium. At their best, Arsenal are renowned for the speed and zip of their passing play, but their fluency was entirely absent. In fact, Arsenal haven't had this much trouble with zip since Wenger's infamous struggles with his overcoat.

The Arsenal team seemed as hungover as most of the 60,000 fans in attendance. The fatigue felt by both players and supporters contributed to a flat atmosphere. Something special was required to spark the game to life, but no one could seem to find an answer.

Wilshere tried. Deployed in the No. 10 role, he gave his best impersonation of Mesut Ozil, darting through the midfield and looking to make things happen. However, his final pass occasionally lacks the laser-like precision of the German. Arsenal struggled to create genuine goal-scoring opportunities.

It speaks volumes that the moment that brought the biggest smile to the faces of the Arsenal fans was the incongruous sight of Bacary Sagna stepping up to take a free kick from 25 yards out. However, Sagna's strike struck the wall, and the gloom soon returned to the stands. Arsenal appeared to have hit a wall of their own.

Podolski struggled to make an impact on the match. While there are definite strengths to his game -- his goal at Upton Park on Boxing Day demonstrated the typically Teutonic efficiency of his shooting -- he is no holdup man. Arsenal have grown so accustomed to playing with Giroud at the helm of their attack that they struggled without a traditional centre-forward on the field.

Toward the end of the first half, Arsenal fans accused Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall of wasting time. In truth, the jabbed fingers would have been better targeted at their own team: Arsenal's play lacked purpose and urgency.

The second half marked a stark improvement. Santi Cazorla began to find space, and Wilshere continued his provocative midfield play.

However, it was not until Wenger opted for a double substitution that Arsenal really found their flow. With the best part of 25 minutes still to play, Wenger withdrew Podolski and Mathieu Flamini, introducing Rosicky and Bendtner.

Immediately, Bendtner's physical presence and penalty-box threat brought coherence to Arsenal's play. Walcott seemed enlivened by Bendtner's presence and produced a series of tantalising crosses -- two of which Per Mertesacker really ought to have converted.

Rosicky buzzed around between the midfield and the strikers, adding oil to Arsenal's engine with his smooth technical style.

Arsenal were made to wait for their breakthrough. However, in the 88th minute, Cardiff's creditable resolve finally crumbled. Marshall palmed away a powerful Bacary Sagna header, but Bendtner showed classic striker's instinct to anticipate the drop of the ball and thump it high into the roof of the net. He sprained an ankle in the immediate aftermath of the goal, but in the short term it didn't matter: Arsenal were finally ahead.

Walcott put the sheen on the score line with a clever clipped finish after a delightful Wilshere assist, and Arsenal were able to end an exhausting game at a relative canter.

The win ensures that Arsenal begin 2014 where they ended 2013: at the summit of the table. For that, they have Bendtner to thank.

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