Sunday, February 14, 2016

Arsenal Last Gasp Winner Keeps Them in Title Hunt (2-1 over Leicester)

Leicester City headed to the Emirates for a noon-time match that could push their improbable march to the title a step closer while Arsenal tried to stave off veritable elimination from chasing a first crown in 12 years. After a rousing start from the Gunners, with Ox cutting in free from the right only to send it across goal instead of shooting and Sanchez missing out on a free header from the resultant corner, the game settled in, with Arsenal dominating possession but Leicester dangerous on the counter. Giroud, scoreless in his last five league games, missed a couple of decent chances, Sanchez had a couple of shots blocked and Ramsey gave the ball away carelessly, though under intense pressure from Leicester. Then, in the 43rd minute, the game turned.

Martin Atkinson has improved in regards to his treatment of Arsenal in the past two seasons, but his penalty call again showed his bias, at least when it comes to the North London club. Vardy left his back foot trailing in the most insidious of dark arts, but it still didn’t touch Monreal, who actually backed away from the challenge, until he was slashing forward to the ground. Nonetheless, Atkinson pointed to the spot and Vardy dispatched the penalty into the right corner as Cech dove the other way. Suddenly Arsenal were down 1-0 and their title charge in tatters. The half ended with Ramsey the third Gunner in the book and Arsenal staring at another second half of the season collapse.
The Gunners, however, were not going down easy and came out for the second half with their guns blazing, but their finishing leaving much to desire. Then Atkinson again turned the tide of the game, this time (shockingly) toward Arsenal. There had been a number of hard fouls by Leicester throughout the game but it was Danny Simpson who was sent off for a second rather soft Yellow on 55 minutes. From there, Arsenal were in charge of the game with one attack after another and a barrage of shots. What was missing was a goal as Sanchez, Giroud and Ramsey fluffed one chance after another. Then, in the 61st minute, a misfiring Walcott (only three league goals all season) came on for Coquelin and less than 10 minutes later they were level. Bellerin crossed the ball to the near post and, in a brilliant display of his touch and vision, Giroud padded a header right into the path of a charging Walcott, who finished smartly to the right of Schmeichel.

Arsenal continued to charge forward in search of the winner, but lack of a finishing touch and great last ditch defending from Leicester kept them at bay. Giroud fell to the ground on two consecutive corners, Ramsey missed two great chances wide, Sanchez had four shots blocked, missed a header and then sent a free shot wide of the far post, before completing scuffing two other chances while Mertesacker had an open header with no one in sight but somehow directed it just wide of the post. With time running out, Welbeck came on for Ox (83’) for his first appearance in 10 months, even as Wenger had considered sitting him out until the last second. The game marched into extra time and then, with what was to be the last chance of the game, Ozil sent in a pitch perfect free kick that Welbeck rose to meet and send into the far corner. Mere seconds remained as Welbeck and several other Gunners dove into the Emirates stands. Leicester looked on in shock and the final whistle soon blew. A much needed 2-1 victory at home and new life in their battle to quash the Cinderella story many are now pining for.

Three thoughts on the game:
1. Arsenal Display Old Frailties, Then Overcome Them: as the Gunners missed chance after chance, fell behind, drew even and then looked set for a draw that would do them little good, I began making a list of the reasons they have not won a title in 12 years. The list consisted of the following items: 1. Missing chances: Ox has a bad habit of making a mash of counters and he again displayed that proclivity on at least two occasions in the first half, Giroud missed a couple of free headers and then had an excellent shot saved by Schmeichel late, Sanchez and Ramsey were far from their best and even eventual heroes Walcott and Welbeck fluffed a chance each. This has been the case in too many big games over the years. 2. Lack of a world class central striker since RVP departed: Giroud appears unable to score enough goals in crucial games and after a strong run to displace Walcott as the starting striker earlier in the season, has seen his goal-scoring form decline precipitously. I like Giroud and believe he contributes in multiple ways throughout a game (as with he clever header that allowed Walcott to equalize), but you really need a 20-goal striker to win the league and Arsenal are the only team in the top four without one. 3. Mistakes in Big Games: two games against a struggling Chelsea, two red cards and two losses. Only two wins in their last 11 against a league leader. February losses against competitors that too often spell doom for their title challenge. And in this game, even if it was a bad call, they concede a penalty after largely dominating the first half.

4. Best Players Drop Off in Big Games: Ozil was not terrible in the game, and ultimately came to the rescue, but Sanchez and Ramsey were downright awful, Koscielny dove into a challenge near midfield that left the defense exposed behind him for what turned out to be the Leicester penalty. And so many chances went wanting in the game (24 shots in total with 6 on target and 11 corners). Walcott and Welbeck came good, but Arsenal need to see better out of their stars in the coming road matchups against United, Everton and City. 5. Not taking advantage of opportunities: Leicester played a man down for 40 minutes in total and for 39 of those minutes they were set for a draw that could have all but eliminated the Gunners from the chase. 6. Bad Calls: Many an Arsenal title run has been beset by bad calls. Not in the two seasons that preceded this one, but many before that. This year, a few calls have gone against them that have cost the team points, including an incorrect offsides against Liverpool that cost them a 1-0 win and two points. There are also the two games against Chelsea and two red cards, one probably unwarranted and the other 50/50. And Martin Atkinson has been a ref that has often been at the center of controversy when it comes to the Gunners, following up with the aforementioned call, and though many will argue the second half sending off was a bit harsh (including Ranieri) I would counter that Drinkwater should have been gone as well.

Yet Arsenal have been slowing progressing over the past three years. It started with the comeback to win the FA Cup against Hull City 3-2 in 2014, then a second FA Cup last season. This season they have dipped in form twice, first in a winless November and then in mid-January through early February. But in a game they had to win, they kept coming at a Leicester City that has been indomitable in recent weeks and found a winner from the most unlikely of sources. In fact, the source of the equalizer was equally surprising, a Walcott that has only scored four goals all season, though two of those have been essential (the other was the opener against City). In any case, this is the kind of win that can erase recent history and catapult the team to a title. Two huge games loom if they are to do so – a North London Derby and a rematch against City. Victories over United, City and now Leicester (twice) show an advancement from years past, while six dropped points against struggling Chelsea and five against Southampton remind that they need to keep their nerve for the final 12 games.

2. Leicester City Benefit and then Hurt by Calls: there were a series of marginal calls by Martin Atkinson in this game, benefitting both teams. First was the very questionable penalty call, given as a result of some quality playacting from Vardy (who has earned six this season alone). In fact, that was the second bad call in 20 seconds, as Wes Morgan was clearly riding the back of Ozil just outside the Arsenal box before the counter that resulted in the penalty. The third bad call was the second yellow on Simpson, of course, though as I previously mentioned, Drinkwater could easily have been sent off as well (after a terrible foul on the leg of Ramsey) and Leicester were increasingly desperate in their tackling as the second half went on. The final bad call of the game, however, is arguably the decision by Ranieri to take off Mahrez and replace him with Wasilewski, the player whose silly foul with 20 seconds left in extra time set up the free kick that would win it. One understands going more defensive, but taking off the player that is the primary architect of their imposing counterattacking football seemed to take the wind completely out of Leicester’s sails and meant they faced wave after wave of Arsenal attack. That the Gunners failed to capitalize on so many chances before the final glory forgives what may be a huge mistake from a manager who has too often come up second best in tight title races aross his career.

3. A Title Race to Remember: Leicester City were mere seconds from a valiant point when Danny Welbeck rose to meet a perfect free kick delivery from Mesut Ozil. A draw would have seen them keep their five-point advantage over Arsenal with 12 to play. Heading into the second half, they could have extended that lead to eight-points and written off one of the three chasers. Instead Arsenal responded and ultimately kept themselves firmly ensconced within the title chase. A couple of hours later, the other two teams in the Top Four faced off and it was Tottenham, with an assist to referee Mark Clattenburg, who pulled off a stunning upset of City at the Etihad to move back into second, a mere two points behind Leicester themselves. And even after two straight losses at home to Top 4 competitors, City remain in striking range, six points back (though their challenge is hanging by a thread). And thus we enter the final 12 games of the season with one of the best races in years, as any of four teams having a real shot at glory, and City needing to keep their focus, lest they lose out on Champions League football to struggling United.

Arsenal have taken a huge step forward after this win, as have Tottenham, but Leicester now has an enviable run of fixtures to remain top as we head toward the final run-in. They will need to keep their head, though, after a tough last-second loss like this. Now is the time to show that they have the mental strength and fortitude to get the job done. Given the struggles many on the team have faced over the years, from the manager all the way down to the subs bench, I certainly wouldn’t count them out yet.

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