Arsenal snatched victory from the ashes Sunday afternoon at the Emirates, with sub Danny Welbeck scoring in the final minute of stoppage time to give the Gunners new life in the title chase with a 2-1 win over leaders Leicester. The win leaves Arsenal now just two points off Leicester's prow in the Premier League title race. Manchester City and Tottenham meet later on this afternoon in another key clash that will also have bearing on this most unpredictable season.
The result leaves Leicester atop the table on 53 points the Foxes have a massive advantage in the run-in, as they have just 12 games to play while Arsenal, still involved in the Champions League and FA Cup, have at least 24. But make no mistake, this was a massive win for the Gunners, who have too often conspired to lose must-win games. Today, at the death, they snatched the brass ring.
Marcin Wasilewski gifted Arsenal with the goal, clattering into Nacho Monreal needlessly to give the Gunners one final set-piece. Mesut Ozil lofted the ball in, and Welbeck -- who had been absent since March of last year -- rose up to head the ball in past a despairing Kasper Schmeichel to win the game in the most dramatic of fashions.
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In truth, history was on Arsenal's side: they had been convincing in their first meeting with Leicester this season, walking away from the King Power with a 5-2 victory in September thanks to an Alexis Sanchez hat-trick. In that game, Leicester had seized the initiative early, only to see Arsenal strike back immediately and then bury the game.
This game was a far tenser affair, with Arsenal staring at an eight-point gap in the title race with a loss. And from the outset, they looked the more nervous side, getting on top of Leicester form the outset, but wholly unable to craft a credible chance in the final third. Scoring has been Arsenal's problem over the past six weeks, with Olivier Giroud and Alexis both struggling to convince, and yet today the Gunners did at least set their scorers up -- the problem was that they could not get the ball on frame.
Alexis signaled Arsenal's problems in the first minute when he whipped a free header off a fine corner from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wide of the frame. It would be a recurring motif, as Giroud would have several chances, putting none of them in harm's way.
Leicester, in fact, had the better chances, with Shinji Okazaki forcing a good stop out of Petr Cech in the 14th minute and Jamie Vardy whipping a header in that Cech was forced to scramble away. In fact, the best chance for Arsenal of the half didn't even result in a shot on goal: Aaron Ramsey was sent sprinting away after Ozil flicked a clever ball over the entire Leicester defense only to see Schmeichel race out off his line and sweep the ball away.
Too often Arsenal looked flatfooted on passes and crosses, and credit should be given to N'Golo Kante, who seemed to be everywhere on the day, cleaning up messes and forcing Arsenal into one uncomfortable situation after another. His presence neutered both Ramsey and Ozil and left Oxlade-Chamberlain with nowhere to go.
But the deadlock would finally be broken after a controversial call from a referee known for making them. In the final minute of the half, Martin Atkinson awarded a penalty to Leicester after Jamie Vardy appeared to go over Monreal's leg. The call looked suspicious on first glance, and replays were damning: the ball was away from Vardy and the Leicester striker dove, conspiring to clatter into Monreal by leaving his leg out. The call enraged Monreal, but Atkinson would not be swayed, and Vardy stepped up to the spot to crash home his 19th league goal of the season.
That sent the teams into the lockerrooms on a chorus of boos from the Emirates faithful, and Atkinson was surrounded by Arsenal players as they headed down the tunnel.
The second half saw the game decay quickly, with Atkinson seeming to lose control. He showed four cards in six minutes to three Leicester players -- with Danny Simpson being sent to the showers after collecting two yellows in five minutes. Simpson first hauled down Alexis in what looked to be a clear booking, but then, with the crowd baying, was harshly sent off for holding Giroud.
That forced Claudio Ranieri into a rearguard action, yanking Riyad Mahrez and Okazaki and playing back to preserve their slim lead. But they could not. Sub Theo Walcott finally got Arsenal level with twenty minutes to play with Leicester inviting pressure. Hector Bellerin made a simple cross in from the right flank that Giroud smartly knocked down for Walcott to scamper on to and slam home.
That set up a barnstorming finish, but despite having more of the ball and a man advantage, Arsenal continued to look frustratingly off-key. Alexis whiffed two gilt-edged chances, actually falling over the ball at the penalty spot with only Schmeichel to beat. Per Mertesacker also missed horribly with five minutes to play, scuffing a free header wide of the near post with Schmeichel beat.
But Wasilewski's error allowed the Gunners one final chance, and they took it. It was a storybook ending for Welbeck -- and it may prove to be a decisive moment in this wild title race. Certainly, Wasilewski thought so: he was inconsolable on the field as Arsenal celebrated at the corner flag.
After the match, Wenger was understandably thrilled with the result. "The effort, energy, intensity was all good," said the Frenchman. "Leicester defended very well but we had bad luck to be 1-0 down at half-time. We were relentless after that - we should have scored more goals."
The 66-year-old quickly played down the victory, despite the obvious importance: "There's a long way to go, we play a lot of big teams," he added. "But we had a bad spell where we couldn't win for four games and have now won two on the bounce. We have come out of that bad spell and still have a good chance."
Foxes boss Ranieri wasn't pleased with the referee's performance, especially for Simpson's sending off. "It was a fantastic match, very fast. I don't know if in a normal match that our two yellows cards was a sending off," said the Italian. "They were normal fouls, but not yellow cards. I think the referee was too severe to us for the sending-off. 11 v 11, I'm sure we win the match. The match was full of fouls so why send off a player? Come on."