Arsenal’s substitutes stole the show at Emirates stadium earlier today, as Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck stepped off the bench to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win against 10-man league leaders Leicester City.
After Jamie Vardy had channeled his inner Wayne Rooney by cheating to win a penalty against the Gunners, before taking it himself and finding the net on the stroke of half-time, the visitors had Danny Simpson sent off early in the second half for two bookable offences and conceded an equaliser with 20 minutes to play.
Olivier Giroud, who was ferociously industrious all game, provided a second headed assist in as many weeks by cleverly nodding the ball into the path of Walcott inside the crowded Leicester penalty area. And Theo, who looked really determined and had proven a livewire on the right flank from the moment he entered the action on the hour mark, remained cool and composed as he met the awkwardly bouncing ball with a side-footed first-time finish.
It was the type of chance you often see players spurn by mis-timing the connection but Walcott utilised the same nerves of steel and text-book finishing technique he produced at Wembley last May when he gave us the lead in the FA Cup Final. After that, and as it had been from the 54th minute when Simpson saw red, it was one-way traffic as Leicester defended deep and in numbers whilst Arsenal racked their brains and ramped up the pressure in search of a winner.
By the time the fourth official held up his board to signal four minutes of added time at the end of the match, Welbeck had been sent on in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to make his first appearance since last April.
The stage was set for the former Manchester United man with seconds to go when Leicester gave away a freekick on our right. Mesut Ozil puffed out his cheeks, collected his thoughts, uttered a little prayer and proceeded to drift a divine ball into the box which Welbeck glanced into the corner to win the match and reduce the gap to the top of the table to just two points for the Gunners.
As Welbeck wheeled away to celebrate in and amongst the fans in the corner, almost all of his team-mates sprinted to join him as the stadium erupted in the kind of feverish manner only a last-gasp winner in a big match can evoke. It was fairytale stuff for Welbz after his near year-long battle with a knee problem as he marked his return in the best possible way.
In truth, the contest had been fairly even in the opening period so the fact Ozil was blatantly fouled in the build-up to Leicester’s penalty award compounded our sense of injustice when Vardy conned the referee by running into Nacho Monreal’s leg to ‘win’ his side a spot-kick, resulting in the visitors carrying a lead into the interval.
The game undeniably swung in our favour once they had a man dismissed but having been on the wrong end of awful refereeing in the first 45, it was about time we got the rub of the green from dubious officiating. Although both of Simpson’s cards were deserved by the letter of the law, it still felt a bit harsh on the Foxes. But f*ck ’em – obviously.
To be honest, I’m still too pumped up by our victory to be writing this coherently but I want to share a few thoughts on individual performances today. I’ll only highlight positive ones though (so no mention of Aaron Ramsey or Alexis Sanchez) and where better to start than Arsene Wenger, who threw on Theo and Danny to turn a match in a manner very reminiscent of when he would often introduce Sylvain Wiltord and Kanu from the bench way back when.
Petr Cech was flawless again, with one save and gather from a Vardy header in the first-half showcasing ridiculously swift reactions. Giroud was tireless up front and played very well, capping his performance with another assist. And Calum Chambers, a half-time sub for Laurent Koscielny after the Frenchman sustained a dead leg, barely put a foot wrong at the back.
Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was threatening on the right before playing some nice passes after moving into the middle following Walcott’s introduction, and despite being successfully shackled by N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater for long periods of the game, Ozil kept going, grew into the match and grabbed another high-quality assist to help us win it at the death
Despite the euphoria of the game’s finale and the importance of the result against a direct rival, there were still some worrying aspects about our play in my opinion but there’s no way I’m dampening the joy of today’s win by discussing them now. That can wait until tomorrow at least because for the time being it’s time to enjoy the Arsenal love-in on this fine, fine Valentine’s Day.