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Newcastle lose to last-gasp Vermaelen strike
IN an area of North London accustomed to seeing the French turn on the style in the Premier League, it had looked as if one of Newcastle United's very own imports from across the English Channel had helped put the brakes on Arsenal's recent revival.
But just when it seemed Hatem Ben Arfa's clinical fourth goal of the season had been enough to secure a point for the Magpies, Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen arrived in the box deep into stoppage time to effectively end Newcastle's hopes of a top four finish.
In a frenetic and tempestuous final few moments at the Emirates in which Robin van Persie, who had taken just 55 seconds to cancel out Ben Arfa's early opener, clashed with Dutch compatriot Tim Krul in the aftermath of the winning goal, the football was overshadowed.
But when the events, which threatened to boil over as both players had to be separated as they walked down the tunnel, calmed down the outcome remained.
Arsenal's victory lifted them to within a point of third-place neighbours Tottenham, while Newcastle are now left to focus on securing Europa League football from the remaining ten games after slipping eight points behind the final Champions League spot.
Arsenal had won their previous five games in a row to revive hopes of chasing down third-placed Tottenham, but Newcastle boss Alan Pardew displayed a surprising air of attacking confidence.
Even though he left out his most expensive recruit, striker Papiss Cisse, there was still plenty of attacking intention from a starting line-up consisting of Ben Arfa, Gabriel Obertan, Jonas Gutierrez to supply lone leading scorer Demba Ba.
Newcastle would have moved to within two points had they won.
And Arsenal looked initially caught out. Newcastle could have been ahead 12 minutes before Ben Arfa's opener when his neat pass inside created space for Ba.
Belgian defender Vermaelen, though, was quick to react and diverted away for a corner.
Vermaelen was the weak link in the build up to the opener. After he cheaply handed possession to Cheik Tiote in the middle of the pitch, the Newcastle midfielder soon turned possession over to Ba.
He left the ball for Obertan to roll out wide for Ben Arfa to do the rest and he had the quality to cut inside Kieran Gibbs before beating goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny inside his near post.
No sooner had those in black and white got back into position after their unusual celebration, Arsenal exploited the gaps down Newcastle's left to level just 55 seconds later.
Full-back Bacary Sagna picked out Tomas Rosicky. He fed Theo Walcott down the right before the England winger's pass inside was picked up by Van Persie.
The in-form Dutchman still had plenty to do, but his quick feet left Mike Williamson on the floor before executing a low, left foot finish from 12 yards inside Krul's left post.
Time and time again Newcastle, and Davide Santon in particular, were caught out by the threat from Walcott, who was the more dangerous out of the Arsenal wingers, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tracked competently by Danny Simpson.
And just before half-time Simpson was on hand to clear Rosicky's goalbound effort from a half cleared corner that had looked like rolling into Krul's right corner.
It was no surprise that, given the space Walcott often found to run in to, that Santon did not appear for the second half. James Perch, often a reliable alternative in a few roles this season, appeared and within seconds he had thwarted Walcott in his tracks.
But Perch, offered a chance in the absence of Ryan Taylor who was missing with a calf complaint, was powerless to stop Walcott soon after.
This time the England international, so often criticised by sections of Arsenal fans for his lack of end product, delivered a teasing cross which was headed goalwards by the head of Rosicky and Krul parried away.
Newcastle found it much harder in the second half to get the ball. Their workrate could not be questioned, but their counterparts in red picked out space far more often.
But with the exception of Krul's two saves from Van Persie, after a clever couple of passes from Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, Newcastle defended strongly.
In fairness to Pardew he never altered his positive thinking. Rather than change them he brought on another striker, replacing Obertan - who had been interchanging roles with Ba anyway - with Shola Ameobi.
Arsenal still had control. Their problem of finding the net was highlighted even more so with 22 minutes left. Rosicky, who had been one of the most effective players on the pitch outside the box, wastefully side-footed a return pass from Walcott well wide when he had the full goal to aim for from 12 yards.
Van Persie wasted a glorious chance when Simpson and Ben Arfa suffered a breakdown in communication, then Gervinho somehow turned a corner wide from three yards out.
When Krul made an exceptional stoppage time save from Vermaelen's header, few could have begrudged Newcastle from returning to the North-East with the point they had earned.
But then, after five minutes added time had been given, Vermaelen slid in deep into injury time to turn Walcott's last inviting centre beyond Krul, sparking Arsenal joy and Newcastle frustration.
Goals: Ben Arfa (14, 0-1); Van Persie (15, 1-1); Vermaelen (90, 2-1)
Bookings: Tiote (63, foul); Koscielny (77, foul); Gutierrez (85, foul); Van Persie (90, dissent); Krul (90, dissent)
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham) 7
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Szczesny 5; Sagna 7, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 8, Gibbs 6; Arteta 6, Song 6; WALCOTT 8, Rosicky 7 (Ramsey 77), Oxlade-Chamberlain 4 (Gervinho 67, 5); Van Persie 8. Subs (not used): Santos, Djourou, Fabianski (gk), Chamakh, Benayoun.
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-2-3-1): KRUL 8; Simpson 8, Williamson 5, Coloccini 7, Santon 4 (Perch 46, 5); Tiote 7 (Guthrie 81), Cabaye 6; Ben Arfa 7, Obertan 5 (Ameobi 60, 5), Gutierrez 6; Ba 6. Subs (not used): Cisse, Gosling, Elliot (gk).
MAN OF THE MATCH
THEO Walcott - tormented Santon and then Perch with his running and deliveries, which created both Arsenal goals.