Monday, February 15, 2016

The Leicester fairytale is dented by Welbeck's heroic return

Following the comprehensive 3-1 win at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City, it felt like most football fans without a vested interest in the title race were on the Leicester City bandwagon. What they’ve achieved as a squad this season is remarkable, and it does make for a great story to see them at the top of the league, so I think it’s safe to assume that anything that significantly damages Leicester’s charge towards the Premier League title would be considered quite unpopular with the football masses.
In many ways, that made Danny Welbeck’s 95th minute winning goal on Sunday all the sweeter. I get the feeling that a lot of football fans are waiting for Arsenal to fall flat on their face and finish fourth again, and that could still happen, but the dramatic 2-1 win means that Arsene Wenger’s team are now two points from the top of the table and, crucially, have momentum and striking options back in the squad.
It might have been an unpopular goal around the country, but inside the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, I’m not sure there could have been a more popular goal scorer. Having not played for Arsenal since April last year, and having only played 60 minutes for the under-21 team as part of his recovery from injury, it was a surprise to see Danny Welbeck even named among the substitutes. Thrown on with Arsenal in desperate need of a winning goal, Welbeck fluffed an opportunity following a knock-down from Olivier Giroud and it looked as if he wasn’t match sharp, and questions about his readiness to be thrown into such an important and high tempo fixture in his first appearance of the season would have been raised.
But as the clock ticked over the allotted four minutes of added time and Mesut Ozil lined up a final free-kick into the box from the right, Welbeck seized the moment for himself in his comeback from injury, and for the team to claw their way back into the midst of the title race. Ozil’s delivery was perfect and Welbeck spun away from his marker before deftly guiding the ball into the bottom corner with his head. I’m still finding random bruises and muscle strains from the ensuing celebrations in the stadium. It was absolute bedlam.
Unlike most home games, virtually everyone stayed to the end knowing how important the match was, and having Welbeck score the winning goal just added another layer of awesomeness to the moment. Since the move to the Emirates, only Thierry Henry vs Manchester United in 2007, Andrey Arshavin vs Barcelona in 2011 and Thierry Henry vs Leeds in 2012 could rival Welbeck’s winner for the outpouring of joy and celebrations that burst from the stands on Sunday.
To get to such a moment though, Arsenal had to endure plenty of frustrating times during the game and dig very deep into their emotional and physical reserves against an impressive Leicester side. It was easy to see why they are at the top of the league, but a significant amount of gloss in Leicester’s fairytale season is taken off for me on seeing some of the diving attempts by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, along with the time wasting of the whole team and some of the dreadful tackles during the game, specifically from Danny Drinkwater. I don’t care if ‘he’s not that type of player’, his attempted challenge on Aaron Ramsey in the second half was disgraceful and should have seen him sent off.
Leicester had also got the run of the green with referee Martin Atkinson in the first half as Jamie Vardy won a penalty for his team by going down after kicking Nacho Monreal as he ran past him. It was easy to see why the referee pointed to the spot, and had there been a similar incident at the other end of the pitch, I’d have been screaming for a penalty, but Vardy undoubtedly wanted to go down, and made sure he kicked a player on his way past to make it look convincing. It was all the more frustrating that seconds earlier, the referee had failed to give a free-kick at the other end of the pitch when Wes Morgan clambered all over the back of Mesut Ozil. Vardy inevitably scored and his efforts to con the referee meant the neutrals’ favourites were ahead at half-time.
At that stage, Arsenal were going to be eight points behind the leaders. With 12 games left, while not impossible, it would surely have killed off a title challenge from the Gunners. Rather than getting on the back of the team, Arsenal fans let Martin Atkinson know their displeasure at his decision-making in the first half, and I’d like to think that helped sway his decisions in the second half as within ten minutes of the restart, Leicester were down to ten men. Danny Simpson committed two cynical fouls on Arsenal’s left flank so can have few complaints about his quick-fire bookings, but it was still surprising to see a referee actually send a Leicester player off as I feared Martin Atkinson would get swayed by the sub-conscious frenzy of the Leicester fairytale.
The sending off meant that Leicester were much less of a threat going forward, which helped Calum Chambers, who’d come on as a substitute to replace the injured Laurent Koscielny at half-time, but it shouldn’t detract from a very impressive showing from the young centre-back in a high-pressure game. His tackling and passing were good, but it was particularly noticable how he and Per Mertesacker, as Arsenal’s slowest centre-backs, were never really exposed by Vardy’s pace through intelligent positioning.
But as the game wore on, Arsene Wenger had to turn to his more attacking options from the bench. The biggest benefit of the return to fitness of key squad members is the bulked out bench, and the genuine game-changing players available in reserve for the manager. Theo Walcott was the first one summoned, and needed to put in an improved showing after his laboured efforts in the recent 0-0 draw with Southampton. He looked energised and was taking responsibility as a more experienced player to make things happen. Following patient build-up play and a superb cushioned header from Olivier Giroud, Walcott calmly fired Arsenal level with 20 minutes to go.
As the game entered the final 10 minutes, Leicester were pushed back deeper and deeper as Arsenal threw everything forward. Welbeck was introduced to the action as Arsenal effectively saw out the game with a 4-2-4 formation with Ramsey, Ozil, Walcott, Giroud, Welbeck and Alexis all on the pitch at the same time. Arsene Wenger couldn’t be accused of not going for it and for not making attacking changes. Numerous chances came and it felt like any hopes of a title challenge were fading away until Welbeck’s last gasp leap.
Forgetting for a moment that the win moved Arsenal to within two points of Leicester and the obvious significance of that mathematical fact, that winning goal just felt like such an incredibly important moment in the life of this team. Arsenal’s bottle to compete in the title race has been questioned so many times, and here they were, winning a game against a direct title rival almost through the sheer force of will and determination at the end of the game. By Emirates standards, the atmosphere was pretty ferocious and intense, but importantly it felt like the fans were always with the team, even when the chips were down during the game. Having the majority of the players launch themselves into the crowd after the winning goal just added to the feeling of togetherness.
After seemingly going through the season without feeling any pressure whatsoever, hopefully the defeat brings a realisation for Leicester that this is a serious title race. Pressure intensifies on every game and doubts can creep in. If that does happen and Leicester’s fairytale season doesn’t finish with the glorious ending, Danny Welbeck’s heroic intervention in the final sentence of this particular chapter of the season will undoubtedly be a defining moment.