Danny Welbeck sends a Valentine to Arsenal fans with winner vs. Leicester
Could there have been any other ending to a game in a Premier League season where nothing makes sense? Only the most implausible denouement would do sufficient justice to a game that throbbed from beginning to end with nerve-shredding tension, skeleton-jarring challenges and constant befuddlement about what Olivier Giroud was thinking when he decided to stop shaving.
And whatever mischievous hack is writing the script for this most pulsating of title races got it exactly right, at least from an Arsenal perspective: Danny Welbeck scoring the winner at the death. Danny "He's not good enough to play for Manchester United" Welbeck, a player who was last seen hobbling off against Chelsea 10 months ago, comes on in the 77th minute of Sunday's massively hyped showdown against 10-man, table-topping dream-chasers Leicester City and RESCUES THE GUNNERS as time --and Arsenal's title challenge -- was just about to run out.
You could call it a fairy-tale ending except that the relegation-rags-to-riches Foxes own this season's copyright on that expression. So instead we'll call it what it really was: a statement-making performance of steely resolve and grace under pressure from an Arsenal team that has rarely shown either attribute when it mattered over the last decade. The thrilling victory in front of an uncharacteristically boisterous home crowd cuts Leicester's lead at the summit to two points putting Arsenal well back (get it?) in the hunt for their first league trophy in so long that I gave up counting.
Thank you, Danny, for ensuring it was actually worth braving minus-3 degree temperatures to haul my frozen carcass to New York's Football Factory before the sun had even seen fit to rise. I also hope you send your hair stylist a box of chocolates for convincing you to retain that high top fade during your long absence because let's face it: any other 'do (say a Marouane Fellaini-like fro or a shaved head) would have altered the delicate trajectory of your winning header from Mesut Ozil's inch-perfect free kick.
Of course, if we're giving out valentines -- and I can afford to be in a generous mood, especially after several pints of celebratory Stella -- it would be remiss of me to not mention Claudio Ranieri. What an unexpected gift the normally wily Leicester manager gave the Gunners with his mystifying substitutions.
Granted, the erstwhile Tinkerman was forced to shuffle his lineup when Leicester right-back Danny Simpson was sent off in the 54th minute for his second yellow card offense, a brainless tug back of Giroud in a hardly dangerous position on the left flank, in five minutes. But why sacrifice Riyad Mahrez for another defender even if the Algerian playmaker's form was below his usual Xavi-worthy level? If nothing else, Mahrez made sure Arsenal could never relax when he had the ball.
And who does Ranieri bring on in his place? A burly Polish defender named Marcin Wasilewski, who looks like a stunt double for the bear in "The Revenant" and whose clumsy lunge at Nacho Monreal with seconds left gave Arsenal the free kick from which Welbeck converted.
It was the kind of reckless act (Simpson's dismissal was their first of the season) that Leicester has avoided in their winter of great content. Their magic carpet ride up the table has been marked by seemingly nerveless displays against the league's elite teams. Indeed, the Foxes were coming off impressive back-to-back away wins over both Liverpool and Man City, performances so authoritative that the bookmakers were moved to change the odds slightly on Leicester lifting the league trophy, going from a season-opening 5,000-1 (the same odds you'd get for Elvis still being alive) down to a mind-bending 7-4.
When Jamie Vardy fell over in the box just before half-time to a chorus of "You're better than that" from the gaggle of Arsenal fans at the bar, the ever-burgeoning contingent of Leicester supporters fired back a giddy salvo of "We're Top Of The League." A win for the Foxes would have given them a seemingly insurmountable eight-point margin over the Gunners; perhaps Vardy was envisioning the open top bus parade through the East Midlands when he made sure to hook his leg into Nacho Monreal's and tumble over despite only Diego Costa-soft contact.
The resulting spot kick was lashed into the right corner by the Leicester striker while the dubious call all but guaranteed that referee Martin Atkinson would not be getting his Feb. 14 bouquet of roses from Arsene Wenger, The Frenchman looked as if he was about to spontaneously combust on the sidelines, gesticulating angrily toward a spot downfield where in the buildup to the penalty, Leicester's human blocking machine, Wes Morgan, had barged over Mesut Ozil, one of many thudding collisions Atkinson chose to ignore.
As he walked toward the tunnel at the break, Wenger wore that familiar haunted look with furrows in his brow so deep that you could lose Jose Mourinho in them. You could sense that he was battling his least favorite French expression -- déjà vu -- as once again his highly talented charges were about to let an opportunity slip in a season of banana peel pratfalls.
Nine minutes into the second half, he found himself once again facing a potentially defining moment when Simpson's largesse took Leicester down to 10 men. But were Arsenal ruthless enough to exploit the advantage?
To his credit, this time Wenger seized the initiative. In the 60th minute, a full 10 minutes before he normally even glances over at his bench, The Professor sent on Theo Walcott in place of midfield hard man Francis Coquelin.
Walcott has had his usual disappointing season, losing out to Giroud as central striker and making only fitful contributions when played out wide, but Wenger knew he could unsettle an undermanned Leicester back line with his scorching pace. No longer would Leicester's commanding midfield general N'Golo Kante be able to focus his spiky attention on keeping Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in check, seemingly marking both at once with indefatigable harrying and snapping challenges. Now he also had to worry about the threat of Walcott, whose runs were stretching Leicester's increasingly tired rearguard.
Fortunately for the Foxes, whenever Arsenal broke through the defensive barricade -- and it sometimes seemed the Gunners had sublet the Leicester penalty area for their latest masterclass in how to waste chances -- Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel was every bit as assured and quick to react as his more famous father, Peter. Giroud in particular, grew frustrated trying to beat the big Dane with his leaping but rather tame headers. It was only in the 70th minute that the Frenchman's efforts were finally rewarded as he cushioned a Hector Bellerin cross into the path of Walcott for the England winger to slam home the equalizer.
As the Arsenal fans at the bar erupted, the horde of New York Foxes stood their ground, chanting "We're Staying Up!" with the ironic delight of someone playing with house money. The game was always Leicester's to lose but it took nearly every tick of the clock (and a questionable red card) for them to do so. When Welbeck came on for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, it was to use his fresh legs to run at the Foxes' wilting back four. But it wasn't his speed that in the end proved to be the difference, it was a flick of his neck muscles as he soared above everyone else to nod in Ozil's delivery. Somewhere, Louis van Gaal threw up in his mouth.
Cue bedlam both at the Emirates and at the Football Factory as Welbeck vaulted into the stands to celebrate with the fans at the former and a rainbow of beer arced over the bar at the latter. "Anyone see a pair of glasses?" asked one sodden Gooner whose eyeglasses had gone flying in a flurry of high-fives, bear hugs, and even some hairy-faced kisses befitting Valentine's Day.
"Oh, to hell with it," muttered the suddenly blind Gooner who was now on all fours searching for his specs on the slick floor. "A pair of glasses is a small price to pay for a last-second winner."
At least I wasn't able to see Spurs win at the Etihad.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.