Well, that was something, wasn’t it?
It feels like a VERY long time since we’ve had an injury time winner at home in a game of real importance (no doubt someone will correct me in the comments, but hey ho – I’m talking about feelings, not facts).
We started the day five points behind Leicester City, which inevitably had us all reaching for that most common of clichés… it’s a Must Win Game.
But yesterday it really did feel like a MWG. Lose, and we would be eight points behind the leaders. Win and the gap would be just two.
Arsene recalled the BFG into central defence alongside Koscielny. Coquelin started in central midfield in place of Flamini and The Ox, perhaps as a reward for his goal against Bournemouth, got the starting berth on the right. The rest of the team was as expected.
The referee was Martin Atkinson, under whom we have not had the best of luck in recent fixtures.
We started very brightly, controlling possession and making several good chances. As early as the third minute we almost scored: Alexis leapt like a salmon on a trampoline to head just wide from a corner.
In the 10th minute we should have had a penalty. The ball was kicked into the Leicester penalty area. Kante, who had an otherwise excellent game for the Foxes, tried to block it with his midriff. The ball was going too far to his left so he leaned over and controlled it between body and arm. It was a blatant arm-to-ball movement and should have been given, but Atkinson was giving very little to Arsenal in the first half.
Giroud was leading the line manfully. He got through and scored but was fractionally offside; he should also have had a penalty when a Leicester defender tried to borrow his shirt during one of our attacks.
Leicester were content to soak up pressure and hit us on the break. They didn’t get many breakaways but when they did, it was definitely squeaky bum time.
In one attack Bellerin dozed off for a split second at the back post, Vardy got in behind him and forced a very good save out of Cech from a header.
In general, however, we were quite good at limiting chances to the visitors. For one thing it was obvious that Bellerin had been ordered to stay back for all our set pieces. With his lightning speed he was able to snuff out most of City’s counter attacks before they became dangerous.
Martin Atkinson’s first half stinker continued as he booked three Arsenal players for their first fouls, while letting Leicester get away with a lot of small offences including several off-the-ball blocks and trips.
And the ref topped off his abysmal efforts shortly before half time by allowing himself to be conned into awarding Vardy a penalty. The Leicester pace man had attacked into the left hand corner of our box. Monreal put a foot in, made no contact and then ostentatiously pulled out of the challenge. Vardy had other ideas. Having overhit the ball to his right, he turned left and crashed into Monreal.
It should have been a foul to Arsenal, but with Atkinson in this form there was little doubt what he would do.
Vardy took the pen – we went in 0-1 down at half time. The fact that there had been a colossally obvious foul on Ozil at the start of the Leicester move only compounded the sense of injustice.
But then something happened. I can only guess that Atkinson must have looked at some replays in the dressing room because he came out a chastened man. If he was all for Leicester in the first 45, he was suddenly all for Arsenal. Undoubtedly the crowd played their part in this too, having let Atkinson know exactly what they thought of his first 45.
Early in the second half Simpson was yellow carded for a not-too-serious foul. Then, 10 minutes into the half, the same player picked up a second yellow for tugging back Giroud. The second was definitely a yellow, but the two cards cumulatively and so close together seemed harsh. Not that I’m going to cry about it. We should have had a penalty for shirt tugging in the first half, so a red card for shirt tugging in the second was a form of poetic justice.
From then on the Foxes went to earth and it was just a question of whether Arsenal’s hounds could dig them out in time.
The manager immediately made a progressive substitution, replacing Coquelin with Walcott.
The big negative was that Koscielny had gone off at half time with a dead leg to be replaced by Chambers, which meant that our central defensive pairing was now Slow and Slower. Fortunately, with the visitors somewhat lacking in the personnel department, Vardy was forced to plough a lonely furrow and our CBs were not too threatened. In fact Chambers had an excellent half.
At the other end it was a full on siege. We created numerous half chances but the breakthrough eventually came when, from a brilliant Giroud cushioned header, Walcott calmly finished to put us level. Still 20 minutes to go (plus stoppages). Could we do it?
The Arsenal onslaught continued. Ten man Leicester defended brilliantly at times, but we also made openings. One Giroud shot forced a stunning save from Schmeichel Junior.
The boss had brought on Danny Welbeck in the 84th – to a great reception from the crowd after such a long injury lay-off.
The 90 minutes ticked by. Every throw-in and goal kick for Leicester took an eternity. Surely it was too late?
But cometh the hour, cometh the returning hero.
A Leicester lump committed a stupid foul on Monreal outside the visitors’ area in the final minute of injury time. If you wanted one person in all the world to take a free kick in that situation, that person would be Mesut Ozil. And lo and behold, we happen to have Mesut Ozil.
Up he stepped, caressing the ball with a Valentine’s Day lover’s touch to send it whipping over the first couple of Leicester defenders straight onto the Holy Head of Welbz.
Two-one to the Arsenal. The title race thrown wide open (again). The crowd went Radio Rental.
Is that 95th minute goal a turning point? Will it – and the players returning from injury – give us the boost we need to push on for the Title?
Don’t know, but I darn well hope so. It ain’t going to be easy. I don’t see Leicester slumping: they’ve gone too far and play too well in their preferred system. I think it will be between them, us and the noisy neighbours… meaning that our visit to the swamp on March 5th is beginning to take on epic proportions.
If yesterday was a Must Win Game, then March 5th is a MMMMMMMWG.
Ed ….. just drool over this once more ….. 🙂