Superly Duperly Sunday, Part One: Arsenal 2-1 Leicester City
“Welbz”, apparently, “is dat guy”, then. It had been ten months since Danny Welbeck last kicked a football in anger, but this afternoon at The Emirates Stadium stabbed home a winning goal for Arsenal against Leicester City which suggests that recent talk of Arsenal being out of the title race was as predictably overstated as anybody who so much as attempts to look at football in a rational sense would have been able to tell you. The celebrations around the ground could not have been much more vociferous had Arsenal won the title today, but they remain two points behind Leicester City, regardless of this win.
Psychologically, however, the importance of such a goal cannot be overstated. There may still be thirteen games left for these two teams and Leicester’s performance wasn’t so bad that we can just assume that their once in a lifetime push to win the Premier League title is over just yet, but Arsenal, whose confidence has often given the impression of being as febrile as ever this season despite the relative paucity of competition around them, now have a head of steam behind them. They may well still only be in second place in the league table, but this afternoon’s match felt like a huge tilt in their favour.
It certainly didn’t feel like that at half-time. Despite dominating possession to the extent that we might have expected, Arsenal failed to create a great deal of chances in the first half, whilst Leicester forced a couple of excellent saves from Petr Cech, from a Jamie Vardy header and a curling shot that may not have been intended as a curling shot from N’Golo Kanté. Kanté was the domineering player of the whole of the first half, seemingly gifted supernatural powers of predicting the movement of the ball and of opposition players, and he was involved in the opening goal, crashing into Laurent Koscielny for the ball to roll loose to Jamie Vardy, whose run on the right-hand side ended with a clumsy, ill thought out challenge from Nacho Monreal. Vardy’s driven penalty kick gave plenty of hints as to that particular player’s confidence at the moment. Arsenal, meanwhile, left the pitch at half-time to boos.
Ten minutes into the second half, however, the timbre of the match changed altogether when Danny Simpson, who had been needlessly booked in the first half, was over-exuberant in the tackle with Olivier Giroud, tugging the Arsenal player’s shirt and giving him all the excuse he needed to tumble to the ground and earn Simpson thirty-five minutes in the away team bath to himself. Upon such fragile axes do matches at this level seem to pivot, these days, but this one had a follow-up when, five minutes later, Riyad Mahrez and Shinji Okazaki were substituted, effectively neutering much of Leicester’s capability of scoring a second goal.
Whether it is fair or even reasonable to criticise Claudio Ranieri for everything that happened afterwards is something of an open question, but what we can say for certain is that, from here on, the two teams were engaged in a game of attack versus defence from which there was only likely to ever be one winner. Theo Walcott swept in an equaliser with twenty minutes left to play, and Leicester’s defence seemed to visibly buckle after this as wave after wave of red-shirted attack buzzed around their penalty area, but it took until ninety-four and a half minutes before another needlessly conceded penalty kick led to Giroud stabbing the ball over the line.
Closing that gap from five points to just two is obviously important for Arsenal. Defeat today – and for twenty-five minutes this afternoon that seemed at least as likely as not – would have left most assuming their challenge for the Premier League title to be heading towards the crematorium. But what really matters, where both Arsenal and Leicester’s seasons will really come to be defined, will be in their reactions to this result. For Leicester, the outside pressure since their win at Manchester City last weekend has been growing at such a precipitous rate that it’s unsurprising that they decided to clam up upon being reduced to ten men this afternoon.
If the confidence that Claudio Ranieri’s team has built up over the last few months or so drains away over the course of their next three or four matches, however, then it does become difficult to see them hanging on at the top. If, however, the team can consider the result for what it was, a narrow defeat to a goal deep into stoppage-time against a much, much wealthier club, take the positives from it all, and bounce back to winning ways over their next few matches, this can reasonably be considered no more than a blip. After all, a couple of weeks ago popular consensus was that Leicester’s next three matches – against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal – would come to define their title credentials. They’ve taken six points from those three matches, and Claudio Ranieri will have to ensure that his players don’t forget that.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have a big few weeks coming up. Still in the Premier League, still in the FA Cup and still in the Champions League, an incredible treble is still theoretically possible, and although becoming the champions of the whole of Europe still sounds a little far-fetched, few will argue that both the Premier League and the FA Cup remain eminently winnable. The team has, however, in the past shown signs of having a propensity to fold when the pressure becomes too great and fighting on three fronts is surely only likely to build that pressure in the future. If we are to have a go at analysing Arsenal ahead of the last few weeks or so, it at least be useful to know which Arsenal it is that we’re expected to look at. Dat guy Welbz has ensured that it certainly couldn’t be further from over, just yet.
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