Nicklas Bendtner has been much-maligned both inside and outside the Emirates, but the ultra-confident Dane could yet prove to have a pivotal impact on ending Arsenal’s long wait for the Premier League title.
Without the injured Olivier Giroud and with Lukas Podolski having offered little as his replacement, Bendtner came off the bench and made the most dramatic of impacts with the crucial goal to break Cardiff City’s admirable resolve less than two minutes before the end of regulation time. With the visitor’s lines breached, a second goal soon followed as Theo Walcott secured a priceless victory in injury time. The three points crucially keep Arsenal top of the table as the Premier League began its second half.
With Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs joining Giroud on the sidelines, this was always liable to be an encounter where the victory would be the only thing that mattered. And that’s exactly how it proved. Arsenal, despite deserving their win, were far from their flowing best, but not for the first time this season showed a precious ability to do what’s necessary to pick up all three points.
The late goals were hard on a Cardiff side who worked tirelessly throughout to deny Arsenal space to play their trademark intricate passing maneuvers. There was also a heavy sense of déjà vu after the Welsh side, again led by interim boss David Kerslake, conceded two late goals on Saturday to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory against Sunderland. Still, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was watching alongside owner Vincent Tan in the director’s box, there is much he can take from the performance by a side of which he is imminently expected to be confirmed as manager.
The visitors were compact, with a defensive line pushed up allowing them to press their opponents and deny them crucial space and time on the ball as Arsenal came into Cardiff’s half. There was little in the way of clear chances for Arsenal in the opening half. Theo Walcott fired into the side netting, while Santi Cazorla shot wide from the edge of the box from Jack Wilshere’s pull-back. While Podolski played through the middle with success for previous club Cologne, he appeared lacking in strikers’ instincts as more than one ball across the face of the box failed to be capitalized upon.
Arsenal upped their intensity at the start of the second half, with Wilshere trying to make something happen but seeing a shot saved. The introduction of Bendtner and Tomas Rosicky for Podolski and Mathieu Flamini saw the hosts move up another gear. And they really should have been in front without the need for the late drama.
Twice in a matter of minutes Per Mertesacker had highly presentable headed chances from crosses to the center of the box but the first he flashed wide before directing the second onto the outside of the post. The big German defender had Bendtner to thank for ensuring that those misses do not come back to haunt him and his team.
As the clock prepared to enter the final two minutes, Bacary Sagna appeared poised to score, but his header from fellow full-back Nacho Monreal’s cross was superbly saved by David Marshall. The Cardiff goalkeeper could do nothing, though, to prevent Bendtner from pouncing on the rebound and smashing the ball into the net.
And, their resolve broken, Cardiff left themselves exposed for Arsenal to double the lead in the second minute of injury time. After a long ball forward, Wilshere flicked Rosicky’s pass delightfully into Walcott’s path down the right of the box and the winger coolly dinked the ball over Marshall for his fifth goal in as many games.