This match had been hyped to the max for at least a week before today’s kickoff. Leicester’s incredible rise and demolition of all doubts gave their story a Hollywood edge. Their bandwagon – heavily laden with people jumping on it – travelled to The Emirates seeking another win which would put them eight points ahead of the Gunners.
After the ninety minutes had played out and Gooners had sang their hearts out, they had been repaid by their team after a fantastic second half display which saw one of those rare moments when fairytales actually do come true.
Arsene Wenger made changes to the side which earned their first victory for four league matches with a 2-0 victory over Bournemouth last weekend – the erratic Mathieu Flamini replaced by fan favourite and stoic Francis Coquelin – and more surprisingly, Per Mertesacker recalled to slot in for Gabriel. Arsene Wenger had told Sky Sports that it wasn’t down to choice, but because the Brazilian had a slight hamstring worry. Jamie Vardy would have surely been salivating at the news.
But if fans were to hark back to when Arsenal smashed the Foxes 5-2, Mertesacker was in that team too, and whilst he didn’t keep a clean sheet and his sedentary nature was at fault for the first goal, he was certainly effective in nullifying the threat of the England striker for the majority of that match.
An exciting development when the teamsheet was announced was the inclusion of Danny Welbeck amongst the substitutes. The England man has endured a torrid time with injury and this would have been a massive boost to him and the team.
It was to get far better for him!
The first half was an edgy affair. It started well for Ranieri’s side and Jamie Vardy lost his marker to plant a header on target, but Petr Cech was his efforts equal , getting down smartly to save. The first forty five minutes had an air of respect from both teams – wary of each others capabilities but wisely keeping their distance. Arsenal were edging possession as was expected and a couple of Olivier Giroud efforts were the highlight – including a wonderfully lofted ball from Mesut Ozil which found the Frenchman who put it past Schmeichel – only for the linesman’s flag to rightly intervene.
The Gunners were giving the Foxes a little too much respect, as soon as Leicester were on the front foot then the Arsenal team en masse hurtled back to defend. You could see the instructions that they had been given – stop the counter attack. Bellerin and Monreal were getting forward to good effect but the way they tracked back was equally pleasing to see. Ramsey and Coquelin were working hard, if a little sloppy with their passing, with Sanchez and Ozil intent on causing damage.
The last fifteen minutes of the half saw a slight change of momentum though. Leicester started to implement their failsafe strategy and it seemed to induce a bit of panic within Gunners ranks. Coquelin and Koscielny were booked and then, a penalty was awarded.
Something important to highlight is that with the benefit of slow motion replays, we can decide whether every single decision made by the match official was correct or not. The penalty awarded to Leicester late in the half, from a swift breakaway no less, started with Kante, who seemed to be scythed down by a lunging Koscielny. The referee played on and Vardy was on the ball wide on the right.
He brought the ball to the box and flicked the ball to the side. Nacho Monreal stuck out a leg, but Vardy didn’t follow the balls path. He instead went toward the Spanish full-back an put his leg onto Monreal’s planted leg. Thanks to technology, we could see that Vardy’s intention was to go down. Martin Atkinson however, saw all of this within one second. At normal speed, then you can see why the decision was to give the penalty.
Vardy stepped up and smacked it to Cech’s right and within a few minutes – still time to book Aaron Ramsey for a late tackle – half time was signalled by Martin Atkinson and the Gunners trudged off the pitch, in stark contras t
o the zip in Leicester’s step.
The second half saw a surprise change with Calum Chambers take to the field, with Laurent Koscielny suffering from a dead leg. Arsenal though, started well, and it was only a combination of Danny Drinkwater and inches that stopped first Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey from equalising.
Martin Atkinson, not content with sharing the limelight, decided to book his first Leicester player, Danny Simpson entering the book for an obstruction on Alexis Sanchez – who incidentally looked busy. A second Leicester booking soon followed with Christian Fuchs getting a yellow for chopping down Giroud.
Then, more controversy. Danny Simpson, just earlier getting a caution, was caught grabbing hold of Olivier Giroud’s sleeve. The Frenchman reacted furiously and for once, Martin Atkinson was well placed and went straight for the yellow. He was off, even though he was reluctant to do so.
Atkinson then was called to centre stage once more. Mesut Ozil received the ball in the centre circle and looked to quickly offload it, but N’golo Kante – who had been quite excellent for Leicester – cynically took the German out. Atkinson though, acted sensibly and booked the defensive midfielder.
Acting sensibly is the perfect segueway, as Francis Coquelin got involved in a little bit of handbags action with Riyhad Mahrez, as the Foxes dangerman refused to rush as he was being substituted. Nothing in it but it was a perfect indicator to the heat in which the game had escalated to.
Arsene Wenger must have seen the same thing, as he hooked the volatile Coquelin and went for the speed and threat of Theo Walcott. The screw was slowly being turned on ten-man Leicester, with Bellerin and Monreal almost camped on the outskirts of the box, pinging balls into the box. Each and every one was being repelled by a now burgeoning Leicester backline.
The Foxes were now camped in their box and completely reliant on the speed of Vardy. Whacking balls out of the box via a clearance and hoping that the England man could latch onto them. A Hail Mary play each time – if you are into your American Football.
Then, the moment Gooners were waiting for, and it had been coming.
A ball into the box found Olivier Giroud. He was well marshalled by two defenders but he deserves enormous credit for getting such a cute contact on the ball and his cushioned header found an onrushing Theo Walcott free. His volley passed Schmeichel at the near post and parity was restored.
The atmosphere had lifted and the home fans went into overdrive, making a huge amount of noise. Danny Drinkwater meanwhile, was slowly getting wound up and a scissors tackle on Aaron Ramsey could have been a lot worse. The Welshman rightly was seething and Drinkwater was lucky to be on the pitch.
Calum Chambers had played well since coming on, and a little passage of play just before the equaliser was scored where he tackled Vardy and then made a mockery of two Leicester players by taking it away from them drew cheers from the crowd. It was good to see the young Englishman could be relied upon, as could his fellow countryman Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had been tidy.
It was all Arsenal now, and Sanchez and Ozil were scheming to create an opening, but with a clogged up opposition box, it was proving difficult.
Arsene Wenger’s choice was to take off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and give Danny Welbeck a run out – his first taste of action since LAST APRIL. The crowd didn’t need picking up but they cheered his introduction with joy – it was good to have him back in the fold.
Olivier Giroud, who had been epic during the game – thought he had scored the winner. The ball bobbled to him in the box and he took a touch to the side before hitting an effort from about eight yards. It was looking like it was the winner, until Kasper Schmeichel – who had been brilliant – flung out a hand and produced a save that is worthy of many replays.
But, the story wasn’t finished. Step forward Danny Welbeck!!!!!
Picture the scene. The last minute. Arsenal need the win. They have a free kick about thirty five yards out. Standing over it was assist master Mesut Ozil.
He puts in a delicate but inch perfect delivery and who meets it but the man who meets it with an accurate header is the man who has been injured since April. The man who was making his return in THIS GAME.
No other words needed, there was no time left, and Arsenal had deservedly grabbed the points. Thanks – in part – to a man who faced his demons and then had the perfect reunion with the fans who had missed him as much as he had missed football.
Football writes the greatest tales.