Amy Lawrence: Santi Cazorla sparkled all game and handled the pressure

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Santi Cazorla injury-time penalty gives Arsenal win against Southampton” was written by Amy Lawrence at the Emirates Stadium, for The Observer on Saturday 10th September 2016 16.19 UTC

Welcome back to the gripping, high tension of the Premier League. The sands were slipping away at the end of a match of frantic chances, it was heading towards a draw, well into stoppage time, when Southampton’s José Fonte grappled with Olivier Giroud in the penalty area. Frankly, the pair had been at each other ever since the Frenchman had come on to the pitch. Penalty.

It was obvious what was at stake for Arsenal. As Arsène Wenger admitted: “When you lose your first home game you cannot afford to drop points in the second home game as it creates anxiety. That is not what you want.”

Santi Cazorla took the ball. Just to add to the nerve-shredding pressure of the moment, Laurent Koscielny had taken a kick to the face and required several minutes of treatment. The wait went on. Was there a winner in this game? Could Arsenal ensure they did not start the season by frittering away five points out of a possible six at home? Might Fraser Forster scupper them again?

Cazorla had sparkled all game, fighting for the right to dictate the game with imagination. He waited and waited. Then he waited for Forster to start his dive before planting his penalty down the middle for a valuable Arsenal victory.

It was a tough blow for Southampton to absorb. They lamented the penalty decision, and the fact the referee had not stopped play in the buildup with Koscielny down injured close to the incident. “I’m angry for my players,” said Claude Puel. “I don’t like to speak about decisions but we can see in the first four games three penalties given. It is a big frustration because we played really well.”

Indeed, they might have grabbed more from their efforts. Not only did they look like getting a draw, they squandered moments of their own to win it in the second half. Shane Long fluffed a couple of outstanding chances.

It was a challenging introduction for Arsenal’s new signings, Lucas Pérez and Shkodran Mustafi, who were thrust straight into the thick of it. There was adventurous football from both teams, but the search for ruthlessness led to a knife-edge atmosphere.

After only a handful of training sessions getting to know their new team-mates, and with barely any football under their belts this season (Mustafi had only played one game and Pérez one half in La Liga before joining), both will clearly benefit from some time to adjust.

“Both lack a bit of competition,” said Wenger. “They were a bit surprised by the pace and commitment of the Premier League. They will adapt to that.”

In the meantime it was up to the experienced men, notably Cazorla and Koscielny, to lead by example. That quality was dearly needed after Southampton opened the scoring in the 18th minute. They began with a scampering energy that unsettled Arsenal and a sharp move was interrupted when Nathan Redmond was clipped by Nacho Monreal.

The free-kick was positioned centrally in the D, and Dusan Tadic struck with expert dip. Petr Cech finger-tipped the ball on to the crossbar and it bounced down then ricocheted off the goalkeeper’s back and in for a bizarre own goal. Arsenal’s home discomfort hung in the air. Having lost their opening game here in a turbulent 4-3 defeat by Liverpool, there was a keen awareness that it was imperative to step it up in terms of both effort and cohesion. What to do? How about a spectacular bicycle kick from a centre-half?

That did the trick in style as Cazorla’s corner was bundled on by Francis Coquelin and Pérez, falling for Koscielny to audaciously finish in the manner of the kind of world-class centre-forward Arsenal have supposedly been short of for years. It was a birthday goal to remember for the captain.

Puel introduced Long, who caused nightmares for Arsenal when they played last Christmas, at half-time to try to inject some fresh momentum. He certainly had the chances to do some damage again but his finishing was off-key.

Arsenal probed and dominated possession. Héctor Bellerín fizzed a shot across goal on the hour and perhaps the fact the most dangerous moment for the 15 minutes of the second half came from a full-back was the sign for change.

On came Giroud and the sprightly Sánchez, a double substitution which came unusually early according to the Wenger substitutions manual. Both senior attackers had opportunities, but it was Cazorla who finished off his master-class with the decisive goal.

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