Arsenal regain momentum with win at Bournemouth as Leicester loom next
If one of the biggest Premier League talking points of the weekend occurred at around 77 minutes into Liverpool's match against Sunderland, Arsenal's Sunday was instead defined by 88 seconds. That was all the time it took for a three-game goalless streak to end and for quickfire strikes from Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to see Arsenal accelerate away from Bournemouth in a vital 2-0 victory away from home.
The importance was not lost on Ozil -- this was not just a normal three points. After four games without a win, it was a return to respectability for Arsenal, setting them up in timely fashion for their biggest game of the season so far: home to Leicester next weekend. "Just in time back to winning ways!" Ozil tweeted, his focus quickly shifting to the visit of Claudio Ranieri's men.
Leicester, conquerors of Manchester City at the weekend in an amazing 3-1 win at Etihad Stadium, loom large in the collective Arsenal consciousness. The team that no one can stop, the team that pays no heed to reputation or expectation, are coming to Emirates Stadium next.
"Leicester were running away, and us playing them next week makes the game very interesting," said Wenger after overseeing a very satisfying win at Bournemouth. "In one week, Leicester have beaten Liverpool and Manchester City. That means that they suddenly become the favourite to win the Premier League. That makes our game on Sunday a big one."
It made the win over Bournemouth a big one, too. It kept Arsenal within five points of the runaway league leaders, a week before they host them in a game they simply must not lose. If they inflict only a third defeat of the season on Leicester, they move to within two points of the top of the table. If they had lost to Bournemouth and then again to Leicester, the gap would have been an unbridgeable 11 points with 12 games left. Game over.
This is why Arsenal's return to winning ways at Bournemouth was so important; 88 seconds to turn the tide of a match and gently alter the complexion of a title race. After losing their way in January, Arsenal were a force renewed when Ozil pummelled a bouncing ball home from an Olivier Giroud knockdown and Oxlade-Chamberlain found the inside of the post from a sliding pass from the excellent Aaron Ramsey.
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But in this crazy season, it is not just Leicester and Manchester City that Arsenal need to worry about. Sitting alongside them on 48 points are of course Tottenham, who extended their winning streak to six Premier League games with a 1-0 win over Watford. Spurs' performance attracted some fulsome praise from Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores, who described them as "animals" and "the best" team in the league in a truly glowing reference. It is a troubling assessment for Arsenal.
In such a context, it is vital Arsenal remained in contention with Sunday's win against Bournemouth. The second half may have been uninspiring as Wenger's side sought to close the game down, but the result was much desired after a fortnight in which their title credentials had been closely examined. Still, there is a long way to go and even a Wenger loyalist like Thierry Henry admitted on Sky Sports that he favours Leicester. Beating Bournemouth is step one of a possible recovery, but Arsenal still need to do some convincing.
"I would question also the mentality of it," Henry said of Arsenal's title challenge. "The game against Chelsea, they didn't score. Those are the sort of games you need to win. They need three points. It is business. You don't win the league for a very long time. Can you win it? It's time to wake up and do it! For me at the moment, Leicester are the team to win it. They're not only showing they can win it, they're showing they can cope with the pressure."
Henry's reasoning is sound. Leicester have lost the fewest games of any team in the Premier League; they look fearless in the face of every challenge. And even if received wisdom dictates they will surely suffer an attack of nerves at some point, such thinking hasn't been much use so far this season. Every time we expect them to fall away, they keep charging on.
Arsenal are not blessed with similar momentum or bulletproof self-belief, but beating Bournemouth at least keeps them in the title conversation ahead of next weekend's huge encounter.