Last-gasp Bendtner, Walcott keep Arsenal top
Arsenal kicked off the New Year with a last-ditch 2-0 win at home to struggling Cardiff City on Wednesday that confirmed their credentials as Premier League title contenders.
Arsenal looked to have run out of ideas as they were frustrated by Cardiff's blue wall of resistance before substitute Nicklas Bendtner struck in the 88th minute.
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.