Premier League Hangover: Capital Gains for Arsenal and Tottenham in Title Race

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Premier League Hangover: Capital Gains for Arsenal and Tottenham in Title Race
Associated Press
Danny Welbeck wheels away in celebration after scoring a last-gasp winner for Arsenal against Leicester City.

Arsene Wenger smelled it. The air inside the Emirates in the 95th minute must have felt thinner than on a mountaintop. Yet still, when he drew it in through pursed lips, he smelled it. It smelled like a goal. It felt like a moment.

It is moments that make seasons. Football is just like life in that loads happens all of the time, yet precious little of it proves to have genuine significance. It is these moments that can be joined as dots to tell the story of a campaign, the rare concrete evidence that makes it onto a detective's whiteboard while the rest is tossed back into boxes marked "circumstantial."

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Which is why when something occurs that transcends the limitations of being just another incident among thousands of others to become a moment, it is instantly recognizable. As a supporter, a writer, a player and manager, you can smell it, taste it, hear it and maybe even see it coming.

With Arsenal deadlocked with Leicester City at 1-1 in the game's dying embers on Sunday, Wenger whiffed it. 

"When we had the free-kick on that side, and I saw Mesut [Ozil] taking it, I thought we had a chance there," the Frenchman said post-match, via the Guardian. "Because his balls are top quality, and we had tall players in the centre then—[Danny] Welbeck, [Calum] Chambers, [Per] Mertesacker and [Olivier] Giroud. I had hope. It did smell goal."

Ozil in possession of a set piece is like a master artist with an easel in one hand and paintbrush in the other. Still, it’s testimony to Wenger’s sense of smell he could demonstrate such prescience given it was rewarded after Leicester substitute Marcin Wasilewski had stank out of the whole of north London with a kamikaze attack on Nacho Monreal.

Locked at 1-1 after a herculean effort from Leicester upon being reduced to 10 men just nine minutes into the second half, there was a tangible sense of drama to the final play of the game. It seemed almost preordained who would meet Ozil’s clipped delivery.

No Premier League player has needed a bit of love more than the injury-ravaged Danny Welbeck over the past 10 months. Fitting, then, that on Valentine’s Day it was he who rose from football’s catacombs, via the substitutes’ bench, to give Arsenal’s title tilt a kiss of life.

If his flick of his head to break Leicester’s resolve was delicate, the relief it manifested was delirious. Few would begrudge the likeable Welbeck a slice of the feel-good factor Leicester have monopolised this season as he careered his way over an advertising hoarding and into the crowd. 

Wenger paid testament to a substitutes' bench packed with quality again at just the right time in the season, per the Daily Mirror

That game shows you, at that level, the bench plays a big part. When you dominate the games, you can bring on strikers like [Theo] Walcott or Welbeck, it changes completely your opportunities.

A loss today would have been massive. After losing you get all the negative vibes, the belief goes down, it would have been much more difficult.

As last-gasp moments go, this was in Michael Thomas territory. Only time will tell whether Welbeck’s intervention in added time of added time, to inflict on Leicester just a third league defeat of the season, will have as big an impact as Thomas’ goal at Anfield, which won the title for Arsenal, did in 1989. 

What we can say for now, for definite, is that a two-point deficit to Leicester looks minuscule in comparison to the five points Arsenal were facing prior to Welbeck's reaffirmation that he is, indeed, Dat Guy. No side in Premier League history has scored more goals than the 100 Arsenal have bagged past the 90-minute mark.

The final 36 minutes after Danny Simpson's dismissal were essentially an extended session of defence versus attack. Even after substitute Walcott's tidy finish from a smart Giroud knockdown restored parity after 70 minutes with Arsenal's first shot on target, the spectre of last season's Champions League exit to Monaco was hard to shift as a catalogue of half-chances were pulled, dragged and skied wide with alarming regularity.

Alexis Sanchez was as willing a runner as ever, but ring rust after injury presented itself as a lack of conviction in his shooting. Aaron Ramsey seemed similarly shy in front of goal. 

Given Arsenal's time-honoured predilection for profligacy it would have been tempting to proffer they were about to shoot themselves in the foot yet again were it not for the fear they may miss. When they did hit the target, Kasper Schmeichel was again in imperious form.

Caps are still being doffed in his direction for a low one-handed save that denied Giroud. It was the only one of the Frenchman's seven shots that troubled the Dane. 

As relayed by the Guardian, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri felt his side would have won had Arsenal not been handed a numerical advantage, and it's hard to disagree.

In the first half, N’Golo Kante dominated the midfield with arguably the finest performance of any individual to date this season. Leicester were at least the equal of their hosts. Without wishing to dip into hyperbole, it was an out-of-this-world performance. Such are Kante's energy levels; he's exhausting to watch, let alone play against.

At half-time in the Sky Sports studio, Jamie Carragher was waxing lyrical in making comparisons that on this showing, when allied to pretty much every other performance the Frenchman has put in this season, don't seem unfounded.

"People make the mistake of thinking that he’s a defensive midfielder," Carragher said. "But he’s not. He’s like Steven Gerrard or Roy Keane in that he can do it all and cover every blade of grass."

Ranieri was critical of Martin Atkinson's decision to dish out two yellow cards to Simpson in quick succession, accusing him of being influenced by a home crowd agitated by a contentious first-half penalty awarded against Arsenal that Jamie Vardy both won and duly dispatched, per the Telegraph.

(Vardy has won more penalties this season as an individual (six) than any other club has as a collective.)

"I think maybe I make mistakes but an international referee give two yellow cards for normal fouls and the match was full of fouls and very difficult fouls," Ranieri lamented.

"The first half was strong, but in the second half maybe because the crowd push a lot and put him under pressure."

To be sent off in a game of such magnitude for a nothing foul on Sanchez and a tug on Giroud was the equivalent of being dumped for the accumulative sins of leaving towels on the bathroom floor and putting the wrong bin out on rubbish day.

Simpson will feel doubly aggrieved when he sees the two lunging tackles Yaya Toure got away with unpunished at the Etihad Stadium later in the day.

Soft perhaps, but to grab a handful of shirt in full view of the referee just minutes after being cautioned merely confirmed the suspicion Mensa didn't lose a member when Simpson decided to concentrate his efforts on becoming a professional footballer. 

It's not all doom and despair, though. Leicester’s fixtures between now and the end of March read Norwich City (h), West Bromwich Albion (h), Watford (a), Newcastle United (h) and Crystal Palace (a). Arsenal's next away games are against Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, Everton and West Ham United.

Moments do indeed make seasons, but there are plenty more to follow between now and the campaign's conclusion in May.

Ranieri is incapable of staying belligerent for long, though, and by the end of his press briefing he had revealed he's given his players a week off with carte blanche to take a break in the sun, per the Telegraph

I said to them, 'Don't worry, it's OK, we are top of the league, two points more.'

The performance was good. We make a little gamble and the players say to me, 'If we make nine points [from games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal] will you give us one week away?'

We make just six points but in my mind I said, 'OK. Go home and we will see you next Monday because you deserve it.' They can go wherever they want.

To think people wonder what his secret is. 

 

Spurs Superb as City Slump

Over in Manchester, there was another moment brewing. Even in a season that has thrown up more red herrings than a Scandinavian trawler, two on the same day is quite the catch. Sunday felt like a red-letter day.

Given Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino’s propensity to keep his cards closer to his chest than Amarillo Slim, he’d never concede to having smelled a winner when Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure was pickpocketed of possession near the halfway line with seven minutes remaining of a game tied at 1-1.

If Toure's languorous toiling brought to mind faded glory, a stately home in dire need of repair, Tottenham substitute Erik Lamela's direct beeline for goal encapsulated the unrelenting dynamism of Pochettino's side. There's nothing Spursy about an incarnation cocking a snook at the adage that youth is wasted on the young. Six of Tottenham's starting XI were 24 years old or younger.

When the ball slipped through Nicolas Otamendi’s legs to put Christian Eriksen through on goal, it seemed almost as though there was a split-second pause for those of us watching to make up our mind. In any other season, watching any Spurs side since 1961, the majority would likely mouth "he’ll miss this" to their television sets.

It’s not just Arsene Wenger who can smell moments. I can’t have been alone in muttering: "He won’t miss this."

He didn’t.

Tottenham’s double over Manchester City means it is now seven consecutive wins in all competitions for Spurs. As the quintessential pragmatist, it is unlikely Pochettino is a dreamer, but even the Argentinian was happy to grant Spurs supporters a moment to idly wonder whether this might just in fact be Tottenham's year.

"The supporters are right to dream of the title," he said post-match, per Sky Sports. "They showed big support from the beginning of the season and I say thank you to them. It is important for our supporters to believe. It is a very important moment to share with our fans.

Maybe he had accepted he'd just witnessed a moment. 

 

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