Theo Walcott struck a startling hat-trick and created two more goals as Arsenal recovered from a so-so first-half to demolish Newcastle. The visitors had equalised three times before Arsenal blew them away.
Arsène Wenger went into this game in with his team in seventh place but insisting that Arsenal could still finish second, declaring: "Chelsea and Manchester City are by no means out of reach," and that his team now had "the combination of unity and understanding … that can give us consistency between January and May".
Alan Pardew, meanwhile, had the rare pleasure of being able to welcome back a key player, though the return of Cheik Tioté was perhaps offset by the losses of Vurnon Anita and Mike Williamson, which forced a slight rejig to the team who sent Sir Alex Ferguson's rage-ometre into overdrive three days ago. Demba Ba, however, was still at the tip of Newcastle's attack, which, given rumoured interest in him from Arsenal, might have given Walcott extra incentive to excel at the tip of Arsenal's.
Newcastle were sharp and tidy early on and Ba should have rewarded their brisk start with the opening goal in the 16th minute. Instead, he headed over the bar from close range after a corner by Sylvain Marveaux. Four minutes later, Walcott, who until then had been frustrated by one-star service, was given his first decent pass of the game and took his chance to outshine the Senegalese, springing a poorly conceived offside trap to collect Lukas Podolski's ball and stroke a low 15-yard shot past Tim Krul and into the far corner.
Thierry Henry has been coaching Walcott while on vacation from the United States, and this was a finish straight out of his manual. Podolski gave Walcott a chance to further embellish a mostly bland first-half performance by Arsenal when he eluded James Perch and slipped the ball through to the aspiring striker. This time, however, Walcott failed to guide the ball past the advancing Krul, who smothered his weak shot.
There was nothing weak about Tioté's shot in the 41st minute and Wojciech Szczesny diverted the 30-yard drive over the bar with difficulty. Arsenal cleared the ensuing corner and Walcott led a promising a counterattack before sparing Newcastle by misdirecting a pass to Santi Cazorla. A two-goal lead would scarcely have reflected the balance of play.
Ba gave the scoreline a fairer look when he equalised two minutes before the break. Jack Wilshere will not be proud of his part in it, as, almost like Samir Nasri in the Manchester derby, he turned to avoid being struck in the face by the Senegalese's free-kick from the edge of the area and unwittingly diverted the shot past Szczesny.
Arsenal began the second half as if they had spent the interval being berated by their manager. They could have regained their lead in the 47th minute when Wilshere played the ball to Podolski, who teed up the overlapping Kieran Gibbs. Krul beat away the full-back's shot from seven yards. But Arsenal kept coming, and went ahead in the 50th minute. Podolski, who was managing to be peripheral in most proceedings yet influential in everything Arsenal did well, won the ball after a Newcastle throw-in and knocked it infield to Santi Cazorla. He picked out Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at the far side of the box and the 19-year-old fired low and hard into a corner of the goal.
Walcott wasted a three-on-two attack in the 57th minute by ignoring well-placed team-mates and shooting weakly wide from 20 yards. Three minutes later, Newcastle drew level with the help of equally wretched Arsenal defending. Gabriel Obertan waltzed his way into the area and sent the ball across the face of goal. Marveaux, alone at the back post, tapped in from two yards as perplexed Arsenal defenders looked accusingly at each other. The confusion soon switched to the other end. Wilshere dispossessed Tioté in midfield before swapping passes with Podolski, driving into the area and clipping a lovely cross towards the back post. Coloccini could only head it on to his own bar and Podolski arrived to nod into the net.
Then Arsenal's defence relapsed. In the 69th minute, Marveaux played a wonderful cross with the outside of his foot over Gibbs and Ba volleyed into the net from six yards to draw the sides level again.
Four minutes later came yet another twist. Gibbs surged into the area to collect a pass from Podolski and pulled it back to Walcott, who spun before placing the ball perfectly into the roof of the net from nine yards. Walcott then reverted to the right wing and created a fifth goal by crossing for Olivier Giroud in the 86th minute, the substitute converting from close range with a diving header. The Frenchman scored again in the 88th minute when he pounced on the ball following another jagged Walcott run .
Walcott completed his hat-trick in stoppage time, wriggling his way into the box before showing marvellous composure to ignore a foul and dinking the ball over Krul from five yards.
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image: © Ronnie Macdonald