Arsenal went from the catbird seat to the outhouse in the space of 45 minutes. Having blitzed Newcastle to take a 4-goal lead in the first 26 minutes, the Gunners appeared unstoppable. But, in the second half, they let their guard down - not the first time - and Newcastle, led by the thug Joey Barton, came back to tie the match, with a bit of an assist from referee Phil Dowd.
Barton actually started the turn around before the end of the first half, when he started diving in with reckless tackles, to which referee Phil Dowd turned a blind eye. It was one such tackle early in the second half that changed the game. After Barton nearly broke his leg, Abu Diaby reacted by putting his hand on the back of Barton's neck and pushing him to the ground. Diaby was red-carded, and Barton was one of the few players on the pitch who managed to finish the game without a card or even a warning. He went on to score two penalties for Newcastle, the second of which was highly questionable. Newcastle's final goal, it has to be said, was on a brilliant, unstoppable volley from outside the box by Cheick Tiote, following a cleared corner kick.
Despite Barton's thuggery and Phil Dowd's numerous questionable calls and non-calls, the Arsenal players really have no one but themselves to blame for the outcome of this match. Abu Diaby deserved his red card; he should have know better than to let Barton get to him. Barton knew exactly what he was doing with his tackles, and the Gunners played right into his hands. Diaby let his teammates down, and will continue to do so for the next three matches from which he is banned, with fellow defensive midfielders Denilson and Alex Song out injured. As for the rest of the Arsenal side, they appeared to panic after Diaby's departure. It didn't help matters when Johan Djourou limped off the field to be replaced in central defense by the slow and slow-witted Sebastien Squillaci. [Wenger's failure to sign a competent central defender during the January transfer period is already proving costly.]
If this game only cost the Gunners two valuable points in the title race, it would be too much. One fears that the psychological blow will ultimately cost them much more.
UPDATE: Playing after the Arsenal match, Man U forfeited their undefeated season at Wolves, which means that Arsenal now trail by just four points in the title race. But it should have been two. The biggest winners on the weekend will be Chelsea and Man City; both teams will feel they are back in the title hunt after the top two stumbled.