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Arsenal's title belief returns as Leicester get a dose of adversity

After a glorious moment from Danny Welbeck that could yet decide the final three months of the title race, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger let the world know what was going through his mind in the fateful final minutes of this 2-1 Arsenal win over Leicester City.

It might be an easy thing to say after the fact, but Wenger indicated that he sensed they would score and that he wasn't quite suffering the same tension as everyone else in the stadium.

"It did smell of a goal, in the last five or six minutes," Wenger said, with a grin. "Every time we had the ball, I didn't have too much time to think, because I thought something could happen there. And they just managed always to get the ball out. And when we had the free-kick on that side, and I saw Mesut [Ozil] taking it, I thought we had a chance there."

Welbeck brilliantly took that chance with his head, and Wenger said it might have been because of what was going through his players' heads, too. The Arsenal manager does have a tendency to talk about "mental strength" too much, but with the way he described the context of that goal within the title race, it was rather justified. Psychology could have a huge role to play, with the after-effects of this game conditioning things.

"We were under shock at half-time," Wenger revealed. "We didn't see that coming, and we were eight points behind Leicester at half-time.

"So that was a big mental hurdle for the team.

"A loss today would have been massive. You get all the negative vibes, the belief goes down."

Now confidence will only go up. After a poor spell in which they only took three points from four games before last week's win away to Bournemouth, this victory will change the entire mood around Arsenal. It will certainly alter the complexion of the title race, bringing the top four closer together and cutting down Leicester's previous five-point lead.

One has to wonder if this result will stem the belief of Claudio Ranieri's side, too.

If that seems like an overreaction to one result, there is plenty of historical precedent here, especially with title challengers who are unexpectedly over-performing. When the season reaches this point, it almost becomes about momentum and rhythm propelling a side forward, as much as quality or a formative game plan. Any break in results can suddenly cause a breakdown in everything else.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger had an inkling that his team would find a way to claim all three points against Leicester.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger had an inkling that his team would find a way to claim all three points against Leicester.

One classic example was Liverpool in 2013-14. Once their winning run was rumbled by Chelsea in April of that season, they just dropped a level. Liverpool no longer played with the same self-assuredness that they enjoyed in the build-up to the 2-0 defeat to Jose Mourinho's team. It was much the same in Arsenal's last true title race in 2007-08. Once Chelsea beat them on Easter Sunday, they were replaced by the Blues as Manchester United's main challengers.

So, will we see similar with Leicester? Will the emotionally-charged nature of this defeat mean the bubble finally bursts?

Ranieri naturally put on the bravest face and tried to remind the world -- and, by extension, his players -- that there is still so much to be confident about.

"I said to them 'Don't worry, it's OK, we are top of the league, two points more [than Arsenal] and the performance was good. Always I tell my players 'make a performance'.

"I [would have been] happy with one point from [Manchester] City and one point today, only two points, and we achieved three.

"I said 'OK, it's the same as if you won the match. Go home.' They made a fantastic performance today."

That is undeniably true. Leicester did put in "not 100 but 120 percent", as Ranieri argued, especially in defence. In that regard, so much of this match was circumstantial and could have gone a different way, right down to the key decisions like the Jamie Vardy penalty decision and the Danny Simpson red card.

Even though Leicester were ultimately overwhelmed by Arsenal, who created so many chances, that will happen when you're playing with 10 men and the natural inclination is to play on the counter anyway.

Leicester CityLeicester City
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If Wenger's side were so impressively full-blooded in attack, Leicester were equally full-blooded in response, offering a series of super-committed challenges and interceptions. That is possibly why at least one red card was inevitable, though. Ranieri did say he was "angry" with referee Martin Atkinson.

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

The first six words from Ranieri are important as well. Leicester and Ranieri did make mistakes, especially for the final goal -- or rather, for what it represented. After all the justifiable talk of Arsenal failing to adapt to Leicester's counterattacking game, and falling into Vardy's trap -- both for allowing him the space to run at the home defence and then drawing Nacho Monreal into a dubious penalty -- Leicester may well have succumbed to a trap as well.

The vast majority of Arsenal's big chances came from free headers in the area. Olivier Giroud had four, Alexis Sanchez had one, Per Mertesacker had one, Laurent Koscielny had one. Eventually, Danny Welbeck had the one that counted.

It is simply remarkable that Leicester never adjusted to that, especially when they have someone of the height of Robert Huth in defence. In that sense, Wenger was right. A goal was coming. Leicester should not have allowed it. They should have stopped the flow of free headers.

It is also pointed that the Arsenal goals came from substitutes: Theo Walcott for the equaliser, and then Welbeck for the winner, adding another element to the match. This was something that worked for Wenger, and something that didn't work for Ranieri.

This might have been one of the Italian's "mistakes", as he put it. First of all, it was eyebrow-raising that he took off Riyad Mahrez for Marcin Wasilewski once Simpson was sent off, causing Leicester's attacking threat to completely drop off. They had no one to keep the ball or keep Arsenal's defenders occupied, as Nacho Monreal was suddenly released to provide so many crosses.

Ranieri's mistake was compounded when he hauled off Shinji Okazaki for Demerai Gray. Okazaki should have been the player brought off when Simpson went off, and it was Gray that went to sleep for Walcott's goal, leaving the winger unmarked.

Leicester's title rivals will be eager to see if the Foxes can recover from their first dose of adversity.
Leicester's title rivals will be eager to see if the Foxes can recover from their first dose of adversity.

While Ranieri got those decisions wrong, Wenger got his right. The decision to bring on Welbeck after barely playing in the last year was inspired, and perhaps instinctively brilliant.

"In the last two days he was convincing in training," Wenger revealed. "I planned at the start, when I made my press conference on Friday morning, to play him next week. But in the last two training sessions he was very strong and I decided just in the end to include him in the squad. You know Danny Welbeck, he is a great guy, with a great mentality. "

The wonder now is what effect this will have on the mentalities of both teams. It may have been a knife-edge game that came down to very little things that could go either way, but it could yet have a huge impact. That tends to be the nature of title races.

"It was happiness, because I think it was a very high level of energy in the game," Wenger said. "We put the intensity in from the first to the last minute. It was as well a mental test for us, because to find yourself down 1-0 at half-time to a team who defends so well, you need to keep going in your head. And we came back in the second half with relentless energy."

Leicester's relentless energy for once gave way, even if there are a lot of explanations for that. Ranieri has revealed he has given the players the week off, to have a foreign break, "Dubai or somewhere."

The question is how they will look when they get back, and what their direction in this title race will be. Arsenal, for the moment at least, will feel like the only way is up. And maybe to the top.

Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.


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