Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Arsenal 2 Leicester City 1

At the final whistle coming through TV speakers in Doolan's Bar, we were as happy as exhausted after the roller coaster of emotions. There were plenty of dramas. At the end of the first half, the tentative gap between the two side at the top was as large as 8 points, which would have dealt  a massive blow to our title aspiration. Going into stoppage time, a point looked a very likely result, with Leicester weathering wave after wave of the hosts' attack. Then, in the last seconds of injury time, the 83rd-minute substitute Danny Welbeck put his glancing header into the bottom right-hand corner of the net, which saw the Gunners move just 2 points behind the leaders Leicester City. Arsenal were now truly back on the track for the title pursuit.

Arsene Wenger made 2 changes to the starting XI that beat Bournemouth 2-0 at the Vitality Stadium a week ago. Prior to the game, one of the major talking points was whether Gabriel should keep his place for his pace, or Mertesacker should replace him for his better reading of the game and aerial edge against his compatriot Huth, who claimed 2 goals against Man City last Saturday. As it happened, the boss didn't  even have the choice as Gabriel suffered a slight hamstring injury in training. Mertesacker against pacey Jamie Vardy was not a prospect we looked forward to. Meanwhile, Francis Coquelin made his first league start since his return from injury at the expense of Mathieu Flamini, who dropped to the bench. Among other substitutes, Danny Welbeck's return since April 2015 was a big boost after his lengthy lay-off. Wenger previously stated that the England striker could feature in the following week's FA Cup 5th round tie against Hull City, while some reports suggested a possibility of the ex-Man U player involved in this game. We were scepitcal about the reports as he had only an hour of an U-21 game under his belt, which seemed to be far from a sufficient preparation for such an important game.

As it was expected, The Gunners enjoyed majority of possession, creating decent opportunities in the opening stage. However, they were 1-0 down at half time as Jamie Vardy scored from the spot in the 45th minute.

To make the matter worse, Laurent Koscielny was replaced by Chambers at half time after suffering a dead leg. Two slow centre-backs facing Leicester's counter-attacks looked increasingly problematic. The mood at Doolan's Bar was fairly subdued as we talked about how our seasons petered out in the space of a couple of weeks after losing big games in title races coupled with exits from domestic and European cup competitions. However, Simpson's sending-off changed the mood. Ranieri seemed to have decided to sit back and protect their narrow lead for the remaining 40 minutes with 9 men behind the ball, when he took Riyad Mahrez off  for a defender Marcin Wasilewski. Although Mahrez was kept quiet by then, it was a relief to see the back of him.

From this point onwards, it was just one-way traffic. Wenger threw Theo Walcott in at the expense of Francis Coquelin, who was already on a yellow card and whose role looked redundant in what appeared to be a case of attack v defence. The 61st-minute substitute scored an equaliser 9 minutes after his introduction as the hosts mounted pressure. With 20 minutes remaining, it appeared that we had a good chance of winning this game. However, as has been the case in recent weeks, the Gunners' finishing left much to be desired. Arsenal amassed 22 attempts at goal throughout the game, of which only 6 were on target. In fact, Theo's equaliser was Arsenal's first shot on target. Aaron Ramsey, Mertesacker, Alexis all had their chances, but could not find the net.We thought Arsenal needed more mobility in their attack and Welbz was just the man who could provide it. But how ready is he? Wenger replied to our call by bringing the England striker on in the 83rd minute.

After Welbz missing a glorious chance in front of goal and Giroud's powerful shot denied by Casper Schmeichel, we nearly resigned that this could be one of those days. As the game entered the last seconds of four added minutes, Leicester substitute, Wasilewski's mindless challenge on Monreal gave us the last hope. Mesut Ozil's free-kick was perfect. There was wild celebration at Doolan's Bar. Apparently, Welbz' goal was Arsenal's 100th goal after the 90-minute mark. Surely, Man U should be the specialists in "Fergie-Time goals", shouldn't they?

One of the biggest post-match talking points was the referee's decisions. We have to agree with Martin Atkinson's decision for the penalty. Nacho Monreal did outstretch his leg in front of Vardy, but is Leicester earning more penalties (10) than any other club just a coincidence? It's safe to say that they are good at winning them. Mahrez's try in the second half was another example, which the referee waved away correctly.

We had a legitimate penalty claim in the 8th minute, when Kanté handled the ball in the box to stop the Ox's cross. The French midfielder clearly moved his arm to block the ball. Also, prior to the penalty incident, Ozil was fouled by Wes Morgan at the other end , but the referee didn't even acknowledge it.

Pundits claim that Simpson's sending-off, especially his first yellow card, was too harsh. However, Leicester got away with too many fouls in the first half. Martin Atkinson even turned an blind eye to Drinkwater's potentially leg-breaking lunge into Ramsey. Instead, Arsenal ended the first half with 3 yellow cards. OK, Alexis demanding the referee a card was not commendable, but he was fouled 4 times, more than any other player on the pitch. A yellow card should stop this kind of crude approaches to stop Arsenal playing. Committing another foul just 5 minutes later, Simpson has only himself to blame for his dismissal. Pulling Giroud's shirt by the sleeve and holding him back was a cynical foul (as cynical as Koscielny's yellow-card offence ).

Despite the massive result, all is not necessarily rosy as we still have a problem with our finishing. However, we take more positives from this game. First of all, the Gunners showed their passion and desire to win. They weren't content with a draw and kept fighting for 3 points until the last second against a resolute Leicester side. "A must-win" label on this game seemed to have motivated them rather than pressurised them. They started a lot better than in their last two home games.

Secondly, we are pleased with improved depth in the squad. We had literally game changers on the bench on this day. A month ago, our attacking option on the bench was limited to two teenagers. Both Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere are expected to be back in a few weeks, according to Wenger, which should provide a further boost to the squad depth.

Our next opponents in the Premier League are Manchester United who are struggling to find consistency. This is considered as one of our most difficult away games remaining this season, but we have a blue print for this match. We adopted an away-game tactic against them in October's reverse fixture, which turned out to be the only game in which we have actually blown away somebody so far this season. But before that, we have to face Hull City this Saturday and Barcelona next Tuesday in two different competitions.

Players ratings

Cech: 8
With Leicester registering only 3 shots on target, he had little to do, but made an excellent save in the first half, when Vardy's header was heading for the left-hand bottom corner of the net.

Bellerin: 7

He was guilty of allowing Vardy's header, but was involved in the build-up for the equaliser by delivering a decent cross for Giroud.

Mertesacker: 7

We feared his lack of pace against Leicester, but he did OK, making a tackle and 2 clearances. However, he should have put his free header at least on target.

Koscielny: 7

Made a tackle, 2 interceptions and 5 clearances in his 45 minutes on the pitch. Replaced by Chambers at half time due to a dead leg. Hopefully, he should recover by the time when we face Barcelona. Shown a yellow card for his challenge on Kant

Monreal: 7
Although he conceded a penalty, he was always available for Alexis in the attack. Made 5 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 4 clearances, delivering 9 crosses.

Coquelin: 6

Quiet game, making no tackle, only 2 interceptions and 1 clearance. He made his presence felt most when he was furiously complaining about Mehrez's slow exit when the Algerian was substituted. Shown a yellow card in the 35th minute and gave way for Theo in the 83rd minute.

Ramsey: 7
Made 4 tackles, 2 interceptions and 1 clearance and also made 106 passes with a 89.6% success rate. Had 4 shots, none of which were on target. His finishing let us down again.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Lively on the right wing, occasionally swapping sides with Alexis. Created 3 chances and delivered 10 crosses.

Özil: 8
He looked struggling against a physical Leicester side in the first half, but he still created 6 chances, delivering a whopping 12 crosses. His deft lofted pass to release Giroud behind Leicester defence nearly led to an opening goal before it was choked off as Giroud was adjudged offside. Claimed his 17th assist of the season with his free-kick leading to Welbz' winner. Daily Mail and Whoscored.com's Man of the Match.

Alexis: 7

Did not quite live up to expectations. His bad habit of ball hogging was more noticeable in this game. Had 6 shots, none of which were on target.

Giroud: 8

As Arsenal bombarded Leicester defence with a massive 50 crosses, he was the central target. Won an impressive 12 aerial duels. His link-up play was excellent, providing an assist for Walcott's equaliser by cleverly knocking down Bellerin's cross into the England striker's path. Unlucky not to get on the scoresheet himself. Had 7 shots, 3 of which were on target. Made 4 key passes. He may not have scored for a month, but his contribution to the team is immense.


Chambers: 7
Replaced Koscielny at half time. We worried about his lack of playing time this season, but he didn't look rusty. Perhaps helped by Leicester's change of tactics after the sending-off. Made a tackle, 2 interceptions, and 2 clearances.

Walcott: 7
Replaced Coquelin in the 61st minutes. Scored the equaliser with a skillful finish and composure.

Welbeck: 7

Came on in the 83rd minute for the Ox. Had 2 shots, both of which were on target, including the winner. He failed to make proper contact with Giroud's knock-down when he was ideally positioned for a goal, though. Great to have him back. Arsenal fans' (emotionally chosen) Man of the Match.

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