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Newcastle can be proud of their progress - even though they end 2013 on a losing note
Full-time: Newcastle United 0 Arsenal 1
IT says much about how far Newcastle United have come in the last 12 months that the overriding feeling at the end of yesterday's game with league leaders Arsenal was that an opportunity had been missed.
Twelve months to the day since they conceded seven goals in a horrendous defeat to the Gunners, the Magpies were undone by a solitary second-half header from Olivier Giroud as Arsene Wenger's side guaranteed they would end 2013 on top of the Premier League pile.
Newcastle will enter the new year in eighth position having slipped below Manchester United and Tottenham, but any slight disappointment at their second home defeat of the campaign must be tempered by a fair degree of pride at just how close they pushed an Arsenal side who could yet end the season as champions.
In a game of precious few openings, the hosts switched off once to allow Giroud to glance Theo Walcott's 65th-minute free-kick into the net, and while the defending was undoubtedly poor, the aberration was notable because of its rarity.
The Magpies have conceded a glut of similarly sloppy goals in the past, so it is to their credit that aside from a no-show at Swansea, they have only shipped five goals in their nine other Premier League games since the start of November.
It is to Arsenal's credit that Newcastle's one mistake yesterday proved so costly, and while the visitors were not at their fluent best, the ability to dig out victories is a priceless commodity in a title race. It is not something that has been associated with previous Arsenal teams, but Wenger's current crop appear to have more backbone that some of their predecessors.
They rode their luck once at St James', with Mathieu Debuchy nodding Yohan Cabaye's corner against the crossbar in first-half stoppage-time.
Newcastle enjoyed plenty of possession either side of that opportunity, but failed to convert it into chances. Set up to be resilient with two holding midfielders, Alan Pardew's side couldn't flick the switch marked creativity in the second half, with even the introduction of Hatem Ben Arfa on the hour mark failing to spark them into life.
Much of that was down to Arsenal's spirit and organisation, and the subsequent defeat provided something of a reality check to those who had been touting the Magpies as potential gatecrashers of the top four.
Newcastle boss Alan Pardew shaked hands with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger before yesterday's game
Given where they were after last year's 7-3 defeat at the Emirates however – in 15th position and in freefall – there is still plenty of cause for satisfaction as the curtain is drawn on 2013.
On their day, this is a Newcastle side capable of beating anyone in the Premier League. And even when they are not quite at their best, they can still give the very best teams a game.
That was certainly the case against Arsenal, although for a brief period in the opening ten minutes, the visitors' slick midfield interplay threatened to cut Newcastle to pieces.
Arsene Wenger was unable to call on the injured Mezut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, but in Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla, the Arsenal boss was still able to field a midfield triumvirate as good as anything in English football.
They hit their straps from the off, but with Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson resolute at the heart of Newcastle's back four and Cheik Tiote returning from suspension to provide his unique brand of midfield ballast, the visitors only had a tame long-range Wilshere effort to show for their efforts in the opening half hour.
The hosts were no more threatening, although with Debuchy and Moussa Sissoko linking effectively on the right-hand side, they increasingly became the more purposeful of the two teams.
Having started the season slowly, Debuchy is currently playing the best football of his Newcastle career, and on the evidence of his head-to-head with compatriot Bacary Sagna, it is easy to see why the Magpies full-back is the preferred option for Laurent Blanc's France team.
He drilled a 25th-minute half-volley over the crossbar after evading his marker to reach Cabaye's floated free-kick, and came within inches of breaking the deadlock as Newcastle fashioned the best opportunity of the opening period in stoppage time.
Cabaye delivered a corner from the left, with Debuchy peeling to the back post to loop a header against the crossbar. The rebound might well have gone in had an alert Wilshere not headed clear from the goalline.
The corner came from a rising Sissoko effort that Wojciech Szczesny tipped over the crossbar, and having spent most of the first half trying to prise an opening from a congested central area, Newcastle finished it with a flourish.
They were unable to maintain their momentum at the start of the second period however, and the game had barely reached the hour mark when Pardew attempted to inject some creativity into proceedings via the introduction of Ben Arfa.
Four minutes later, however, and Newcastle were behind. Tiote fouled Cazorla close to the halfway line, and after Walcott delivered a floated free-kick into the box, Giroud stole ahead of Williamson to glance home a header.
The striker should not have been afforded anything like as much room in the penalty area, but the quality of his run was also a key factor in his first goal in eight games.
Arsenal should really have added a second four minutes later, but Walcott was twice denied, first by Tim Krul, who saved his shot after he latched on to Wilshere's through ball, and then by Debuchy, who cleared his follow-up header off the line.
Newcastle's Moussa Sissoko rues a missed oppertunity
With the visitors having failed to put the game to bed, Newcastle continued to harbour hopes of a late equaliser, but while Shola Ameobi replaced Vurnon Anita to form a two-man strike force, Arsenal were rarely stretched.
Indeed, the visitors' only scare of the entire second period was entirely of their own making, with Szczesny drilling a hurried clearance into Remy's face and breathing a huge sigh of relief as the ball rebounded narrowly past the left-hand upright.
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