Arsenal dealt a massive blow to Leicester City's title hopes—and simultaneously boosted their own—as Danny Welbeck gave the Gunners a vital 2-1 win with a stoppage-time winner at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Jamie Vardy smashed home a controversial penalty just before half-time to put the Foxes ahead after he was felled by Nacho Monreal. Leicester, however, were reduced to 10 men early in the second half when Danny Simpson was shown a second yellow card.
Theo Walcott equalised with 20 minutes remaining, but the Gunners seemed set to be frustrated in their endeavours until Welbeck, making his first appearance of the season, pounced in the 95th minute to break the hearts of the visitors. Arsenal moved into second place with the result and is just two points behind Leicester. Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, in third and fourth, respectively, play later on Sunday.
Legendary manager Carlo Ancelotti was in attendance for this one, such was the magnitude of the occasion, and posted the following on social media:
For Arsenal, the game was billed as a brilliant chance to get back in contention for the title after some patchy form in recent weeks. And Arsene Wenger's side flew out of the traps, with Alexis Sanchez twice going close inside the opening couple of minutes.
But after a frantic beginning, Leicester settled brilliantly, with Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante starting to dictate the course of the game with their industry off the ball and quality on it.
As BBC Sport's Phil McNulty noted, Kante in particular was playing well:
Every club in the Premier League must look at Leicester City snapping up Kante for only £6m and ask: "What happened there?" Outstanding.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) February 14, 2016
As you'd expect in a big game like this, there were plenty of massive calls for referee Martin Atkinson to make. Arsenal wanted a penalty early on when Kante seemed to stop a cross from Mesut Ozil with his arm, but their appeals were waved away. Olivier Giroud later had a goal correctly chalked off for offside.
The most controversial moment of the clash was still to come, though. With half-time looming, Vardy was too quick for Monreal in the penalty area and brought down; Atkinson pointed to the penalty spot to the fury of the home supporters.
With Riyad Mahrez taken off penalty kicks after missing against Aston Villa and Bournemouth recently, Vardy dusted himself down and thrashed the kick home in the 45th minute. Courtesy of Oliver Kay of the Times and pundit Kyle Martino, there were differing opinions about whether the penalty should have been awarded:
Vardy's right leg is impeded. Enough for a pen? Possibly. But what he does with left leg - which causes fall - is pure "simulation", ie dive— Oliver Kay (@OliverKayTimes) February 14, 2016
Agree with you it was a penalty @ThierryHenry but be careful, Arsenal fans are rabid this morning. I still love them though.— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) February 14, 2016
Nevertheless, the Foxes had a critical one-goal lead at half-time, and their supporters, tucked away in one corner of the Emirates Stadium, were singing about a potential league triumph. Meanwhile, the Arsenal supporters made their feelings known to Atkinson.
Within nine minutes of the restart, the referee was back in the Gunners' good books. That's after he turned away a Mahrez penalty appeal and then gave Simpson his marching orders on 54 minutes for a second bookable offence—the former Manchester United man had tugged on the shirt of Giroud.
Squawka's Greg Johnson did not agree with the decision to dismiss the Leicester man:
Very, very harsh on Simpson, I reckon.— Greg Johnson (@gregianjohnson) February 14, 2016
Claudio Ranieri quickly sacrificed the attacking flair of Mahrez for powerful defender Marcin Wasilewski. As you'd expect, from that point on, the Gunners sought to pour the pressure on their opponents, who shifted into survival mode.
While Ranieri brought on his defensive reinforcements, Wenger went on the attack, with Walcott replacing midfield destroyer Francis Coquelin. It proved to be a savvy move by the Frenchman.
Indeed, after some sustained pressure, the Foxes finally yielded, as the Walcott latched onto Giroud's brilliant header to hammer the ball beyond Kasper Schmeichel. As noted by OptaJoe, it was the first time the Gunners had actually threatened the Leicester goal:
1 - Theo Walcott's goal came from Arsenal's first shot on target in the match against Leicester City. Timely.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 14, 2016
It was a huge boost for Arsenal, who clearly felt they were capable of snatching a winner. And with Vardy an isolated figure at the point of the attack, they came forward at will in the latter stages.
Both Per Mertesacker and Welbeck missed clear chances to win the game before the 90th minute. Their profligacy seemed set to cost Arsenal before the England international headed home his dramatic winner.
The striker didn't show any signs of rustiness as he leaped highest in the area to head home Ozil's free-kick, sparking scenes of raw jubilation at the Emirates. Here are the dramatic moments after Welbeck flicked the header home, per Sky Sports Football:
Journalist and Arsenal fanatic Piers Morgan paid tribute to the fighting spirit of the Gunners:
THAT'S how you win the League.— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) February 14, 2016
Never give up. Keep fighting.
Proud of the team. #afc
Who will win the Premier League?
The loss is a galling one for Leicester, who were in control of the contest before Simpson was dismissed. Ranieri will be immensely proud of his players' efforts, and with a two-point buffer still intact at the top of the table, the Foxes are still in a fine position. You'd certainly fancy them to bounce back against Norwich City at home in their next clash.
Arsenal haven't sampled a moment quite as significant, dramatic and morale-boosting as this one for a long time. This is the kind of result that can alter the course of a season, and Wenger will be delighted to have seen his side playing until the very end. After this victory in these circumstances, there'll be massive regret at the Emirates if they don't go on to clinch the title.
Ranieri said he feels as though Leicester would have won this one had Simpson stayed on the pitch, per Tom Davis of Goal:
Fantastic match, very fast. Eleven versus 11, I think we win. Both yellows for Simpson were fouls but not yellows. Why send him off?
Arsenal are a fantastic team, but we were in control. They were smarter than us for the winning goal.
We played to win and played well. We lost, so well done to our opponents. We're still top. We're focused on Norwich.
The Italian also suggested Atkinson bowed under the weight of the home crowd in the second half, per Henry Winter of the Times:
Ranieri: "I'm angry. An international ref gives 2 yellow cards for normal fouls. In 2nd half maybe crowd put him (Atkinson) under pressure"— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) February 14, 2016
Aaron Ramsey posted the following photo on social media in the minutes after the match:
Afterward, both of the Arsenal goalscorers expressed their delight at taking the points in such pulsating circumstances, per BBC Sport.
"Dying seconds, we kept pushing, had chance after chance," Welbeck said. "I missed the first opportunity and tried to make amends. It is important and the most important thing is to get the win. It has been a roller coaster for me, a difficult moment and my family and friends know what I have been through."
Said Walcott: "[Welbeck] hasn't played for nine months, and to get into the mix like that—special players come into big games. That could be massive."