In recent seasons, being bereft of seven players would have had many a gambling man rushing to bet on Arsenal to lose. It is a testament to the development of the squad and how far they have come in a short space of time this season that they head into the weekend missing seven players yet will still field a strong eleven and have a bench packed full of talent, too.
Thankfully for Arsene Wenger, the only long term absentee is Theo Walcott, who has had surgery to repair his damaged anterior cruciate ligament in the past week. As has been well documented, Walcott will miss the summer’s World Cup, but Wenger is positive this injury will have no long-term damaging impact on the player. Wenger told Arsenal’s website this afternoon, “It [Walcott’s surgery] went very well. The damage was real in the knee so he will have to take the needed time, so let’s not be hopeful that he will go to the World Cup - that is not possible. But overall his long-term future is very positive. It's about being fit for next season now.”
While Walcott’s injury is no doubt a blow, the re-emergence of Serge Gnabry into the Gunners’ first team picture as well as the return from injury of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on Monday night ensures Arsenal still have options in Walcott’s usual right side position, although ironically the return of these two was probably going to see Walcott deployed up front to give Olivier Giroud a rest in certain upcoming games.
Among the other absentees are Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, and Thomas Vermaelen, who are all expected back in early February. Wenger said of the trio, “Ramsey and Arteta are both out for this game. Vermaelen too. I personally believe the three will miss the Coventry game [on 24 January in the FA Cup] as well and will be available after that.”
Arsenal’s other absentees are Nacho Monreal, Nicklas Bendtner, and Tomas Rosicky, although Rosicky may be available to play if the club can source a suitable mask to protect his double nose break.
While Manchester City and Chelsea remain on their coattails, Arsenal continue to defy those expecting them to fall away.
With time almost up and the game against Cardiff looking beyond them, goals from substitute Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott secured a win that kept them at the top of the table.
It was a game that Arsenal might have lost or drawn in recent campaigns, but this is a different side: "We have a good togetherness in the side," said Wenger.
"The players come on with the right attitude and that makes the difference. You know that if you do not have that in the championship, then you have no chance to do it. We have that in the squad. We have to take care of that spirit and show it in every game." Said the Frenchman.
Bendtner was the hero against Cardiff after making the all-important breakthrough with just two minutes left. Once jeered by the Arsenal fans, the Denmark striker is slowly winning round those who had written him off after he spent the last two seasons out on loan.
However, Wenger revealed that he had sustained an ankle injury that is likely to keep him out for several weeks: "He is a player who has gone through some difficult periods, so I just want to give him great credit," said Wenger.
"I told him already today (Wednesday) that he is back to the level I want him to be at, and if he continues to develop like that he will come back into the team. Unfortunately he has got injured and it looks like it is not a question of days, but weeks, with a sprained ankle. I am very sad for us, but for him as well." He added.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in the directors' box as he edges closer to taking charge of Cardiff following Malky Mackay's well-documented sacking. The former Manchester United striker, now managing in his native Norway with Molde, would have been impressed by his potential new side and Wenger believes he stands to inherit a team capable of avoiding instant relegation.
"It is a chance for Ole," Wenger added. "Basically what you want when you are young is a chance and after you have to make the maximum of that chance. He has already experience as a manager in Norway, so he has learnt his job. He was an intelligent player, so he is an intelligent boy as well, and that will help him to be successful."
Solskjaer's imminent appointment could leave caretaker managers David Kerslake and Joe McBride searching for new jobs, but Kerslake said that they were more concerned by the welfare of the club: "I believe that the squad we have is good enough to survive in the Premier League," he said.
"Whoever comes in, obviously there is an important month coming up and if he can add to it, if he can make the squad better, then all well and good, but I believe the team are good enough to stay up. Coaches and managers in football know that it's a precarious job and we just get on with it. There's no problem there."
Theo Walcott sealed the win in injury time to complete a gritty victory that suggests that this could yet be the year that Arsene Wenger's side end their nine-year trophy drought with the biggest prize in English football. The late goals enabled Arsenal to return to first place, after Manchester City had taken provisional control of the title race with a 3-2 success at Swansea City earlier in the day. Missing so many key players, it looked as though Cardiff would come away with a precious point before their crushing late heartbreak.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in the stands as he edges closer to taking charge of Cardiff following Malky Mackay's sacking. The former Manchester United striker, now managing in his native Norway with Molde, would have been impressed with his potential new side in spells at the Emirates Stadium. Few would have given Cardiff a chance, given their current struggles at the wrong end of the table. Arsenal, on the other hand, would have considered this a home banker. Sitting at the top of the tree heading into 2014, this was a game they were expected to canter through.
However, an unremarkable opening 45 minutes saw Arsenal fail to bring a save out of Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall.
Walcott came the closest when he volleyed Jack Wilshere's cross into the side-netting after 13 minutes. That besides, Arsenal looked a pale imitation of the side that had previously dismantled so many teams at the Emirates.
The home side dominated territory and possession, but everything was done at such a slow tempo that Cardiff were able to pile bodies behind the ball. Santi Cazorla and Walcott lost their radars by shooting wide when well-placed and the midfielders were not the only Arsenal players to suffer a similar fate.
Cardiff were defending resolutely, but they were fortunate to escape in the 25th minute when Wilshere fell under Gary Medel's clumsy challenge in the penalty area. There were few complaints from Arsenal when a penalty was not given, but replays suggested that the England midfielder, celebrating his 22nd birthday, had a strong case despite referee Jon Moss waving away his appeals. Cardiff's ploy was to frustrate, but a rare venture forward saw Jordon Mutch produce a jinking run and shot that was blocked by the legs of Arsenal's largely redundant goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
Wenger would have spoken of the the need to quicken his side's passing during the half-time interval, although Cardiff had visibly grown in confidence. Wilshere did finally threaten in the 65th minute when he struck the outside of the post with an angled drive. It was the start of a concerted spell of pressure and Arsenal were coming ever closer to the breakthrough as they laid siege with wave after wave of attacks.
Per Mertesacker headed wide before wasting another chance when he escaped his marker but could only nod against the post. Arsenal were becoming increasingly desperate, but with two minutes remaining they finally scored through Bendtner.
Bacary Sagna's header from Nacho Monreal's cross finally brought a save out of Marshall, but the ball fell kindly for the Denmark striker to rifle into the roof of the net. It proved to be his final contribution as he limped off after turning his ankle in scoring, but the game was up for Cardiff and Arsenal were able to rest easy after Walcott skipped through to clip home in added time.
Nicklas Bendtner hopes his goal for Premier League leaders Arsenal against Hull on Wednesday will lead to renewed first-team action. The Denmark international, recalled by manager Arsene Wenger to give leading striker Olivier Giroud a rest, headed the hosts in front inside two minutes -- Bendtner's first Arsenal goal since March 2011.
Arsenal went on to win 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium and the Gunners remain four points clear at the top of the table. Bendtner faced an uncertain Arsenal future after several loan spells at other clubs and then hit the headlines last month following a police caution for causing damage to an apartment building where he lives.
"It was a fantastic feeling, I think my celebration for the goal was a show of that," the 25-year-old Bendtner told Arsenal Player. "It was my first Premier League game this season, so I am pleased to have scored and that we won.
"It has been difficult for the players who have not been in the team because we have had such good form and the players who have played have been magnificent.
"With the way people play now, it looks like whoever comes in takes it in his stride and goes with it, that showed again because there were a couple of changes and everybody played well."
Arsenal are at home to Everton on Sunday, then travel to Napoli for their final Champions League group match before facing Manchester City a week on Saturday.
"We are very much looking forward to it because we know this is a very hard period coming up and we need everybody to be focused and sharp, but we will take just one game at a time and try to put the points on the table," Bendtner said.
A goal early in each half from Nicklas Bendtner and Mesut Özil allowed Arsenal to maintain their four-point advantage at the top of the Premier League table by beating Hull City 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday.
The hosts made five changes from the side that had won 3-0 at Cardiff City on Saturday, with Carl Jenkinson replacing the injured Bacary Sagna and Tomas Rosicky, Nacho Monreal, Mathieu Flamini and Bendtner allowing Mikel Arteta, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud to rest on the bench.
Hull, 2-1 winners at the Emirates in September 2008, made two alterations to the side that beat Liverpool 3-1 on Sunday -- the East Yorkshire club's first win over the Merseysiders in their history -- with James Chester and Danny Graham coming in for the suspended Curtis Davies and Robert Koren, who dropped to the bench.
Bendtner had not started an Arsenal game in the Premier League since March 2011 but needed just 90 seconds to open the scoring.
Aaron Ramsey's pass allowed Jenkinson to launch a pacy cross from the right and the Denmark forward timed his run perfectly to head it past Allan McGregor in the Hull goal.
McGregor soon had to save a close-range shot from Laurent Koscielny as Arsenal dominated and Bendtner almost doubled the lead when the Scotland goalkeeper could not hold on to Germany playmaker Özil's shot. Bendtner was first to the loose ball but was too clumsy trying to take it past McGregor and ended up putting it wide.
Yannick Sagbo failed to connect with a decent ball to the back post as Hull retaliated for the first time but Arsenal were soon back in control, with Koscielny scooping over from a corner and Aaron Ramsey too high with a drive from outside the box.
McGregor did well to tip a better Ramsey effort round a post but Hull began to enjoy some possession and a dangerous cross from Tom Huddlestone flashed across the Arsenal box before Chester headed wide from a corner.
The last chance of the half was Arsenal's, with Özil heading a Bendtner cross wide, but he doubled the scoring within two second-half minutes. Monreal only just kept the ball in play in the build up but Ramsey's reverse pass gave Özil just enough goal to aim at and he slipped the ball effortlessly past McGregor.
The goalkeeper again did well to deny Ramsey and Bendtner's header from the corner was headed off the line by Robbie Brady.
Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was hurt when Sagbo slid in and caught his head but he was soon able to continue and the Pole saved a shot from Jake Livermore shortly afterwards.
With the game all but won Arsenal sent on Theo Walcott and Wilshere for the final 17 minutes, with Bendtner receiving plenty of applause as he trotted off.