This afternoon, Arsenal managed something no other side have done this term – beat Leicester in both home and away fixtures. Second-half strikes from the substitute duo of Theo Walcott and the returning Danny Welbeck helped seall all three points in what was a must-win game for the hosts.
An intriguing, fast-paced start
It was clear that, despite the early 12pm kick-off, both sides were raring to start and eager to prove their respective title credentials at the Emirates – buoyed by two sets of supporters who’ve been in contrasting voices all season. Arsenal were tipped as favourites to lift the trophy in May, for the first time in over a decade, whilst Leicester don’t have the pedigree, nor the experience, attached to a ‘title-winning squad’, especially as they narrowly avoided relegation last term.
Arsenal started brightly as Leicester were sluggish in the early exchanges, but the hosts failed to make their early pressure in the final third count and ultimately, they were left to regret this once the Foxes gradually got themselves into the game. Spearheaded by driving midfield runs from N’Golo Kante and a ferocious tenacity displayed by Danny Drinkwater, the midfield battles were evidently challenging for the Gunners to take control of.
Half-chances, and a controversial goal
Aside from some quick reactions modelled by Kasper Schmeichel at one end, to thwart Aaron Ramsey‘s counter-attacking move on the edge of the area, Arsenal struggled to test the experienced Dane in the first-half. The same couldn’t be said for Petr Cech though – who was forced into a string of excellent saves to deny both Kante and in particular, Jamie Vardy with a close-range header as Leicester looked increasingly dangerous on the front-foot, even with less possession than they’re used to.
Claudio Ranieri’s men were seemingly happy to soak up pressure and allow Arsenal time on the ball, but their pressing tactic was effective as the likes of Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil didn’t have much space to create a killer ball in the final third. Olivier Giroud was virtually feeding off scraps, and despite some questionable decision-making from referee Martin Atkinson, the scores stayed level with both sides looking hungry to break the deadlock.
It was inevitably going to come at one stage or another, and Leicester opened the scoring in controversial fashion. Who else, but Jamie Vardy – notching his 19th League goal of the campaign with a thumping penalty strike, sending Cech the wrong way in the process. So why the controversy, I hear you say? The manner of the penalty decision, itself. Vardy advanced towards the edge of the area with fullback Nacho Monreal attempting to match him stride-for-stride. The experienced Spaniard planted an outstretched foot to try and snatch the ball from the Englishman’s grasp after an initial poor touch, but seeing the leg there in the open, Vardy seemingly ran purposely into Monreal’s direction – even with Nacho appearing to move his body out of the way.
From the referee’s point of view, and the visiting fans’, it was the correct decision, a spot-kick that was dispatched perfectly. But it left Arséne’s side with a bad taste in their mouths going into the interval, a goal behind despite the half-chances they created and the possession they enjoyed, warranted more.
Little did Leicester know, the 1-0 deficit would fire the Gunners towards a much-needed victory in dramatic circumstances.
An inspired fightback – a dramatic one too
It was clear that the Gunners need to improve upon their first-half showing, considering they had all the possession but nothing to show for it. They came out flying once more, and almost equalised within minutes of the restart. Then, a half-hearted penalty appeal was waved away by Atkinson as Mahrez went down under the suspected challenge of Monreal – although there was minimal contact, not enough to bring the tricky Algerian down to ground.
Danny Simpson‘s dismissal saw the momentum shift even further in Arsenal’s direction, after two bookings in quick succession for needless fouls – first a late challenge, before a petulant tug on Giroud as he was edging toward the box.
Theo Walcott, fresh off the substitutes’ bench, equalised with twenty minutes to spare. Not the most amazing of finishes, but a well-taken one nonetheless, as he lofted the ball over Schmeichel and sent the home supporters wild with relief – mixed with some celebration. It wouldn’t be enough, alas. Giroud, who was credited with the assist for Walcott’s goal, couldn’t find the net despite getting himself into promising areas on a number of occasions.
Then, with seconds remaining, a free-kick was seen as virtually the last kick of the game. Mesut Ozil standing over it, drilled into the area at an inviting pace, the head of Danny Welbeck – who has been sidelined for the last TEN months with knee issues – popped up with a neatly-struck effort to snatch all three points for the north Londoners in what was a must-win game for them.
An enthralling game, an unpredictable spectacle, one that’ll have Leicester undoubtedly licking their wounds. But, is that the type of performance you’d expect from a possible title-winning squad such as Arsenal’s? Showing resillience, against all odds in the dying embers?