Arsenal's magical moment could pave way for Premier League title
Football can be cruel but it can be beautiful too, and sometimes it even hurtles you between those two contrasting states in a split-second. Sunday was one of those moments to elicit an unforgettable torrent of emotion, transform a match, and potentially a season.
For 94 minutes, Arsenal's home fixture against Leicester City was a match to actively confirm all the old suspicions, all of them justified, about Arsene Wenger's side: They were wasteful in front of goal, punished for naivety in defence and saw the Premier League trophy slipping away from them, unable yet again to embrace an opportunity that football's Gods had presented to them.
Going a goal up and then clinging onto a point with 10 men at 1-1, Leicester were going to maintain their five-point advantage over Arsenal and continue their desperately improbable, yet increasingly certain march to the Premier League title. Arsenal, by contrast, were tumbling towards an all-too familiar fate: rank disappointment, and a sore case of what-could-have-been. You could almost have tasted the recurring sense of futility which has pervaded the second half of Wenger's tenure.
So perhaps it was fitting that it took a player whose football education, first as a young supporter and then an emerging star, came in the milieu of Manchester United's golden era to seal the most un-Arsenal of victories. Danny Welbeck's winning header deep was firmly in "Fergie Time"; it certainly didn't speak of a player induced into Arsenal's cult of calamity.
Adding a further twist of fate, he wasn't even supposed to be in the squad after only just returning from a 10-month injury absence. Asked when he decided Welbeck would be included, Wenger replied after the game: "Yesterday [Saturday]. In the last two days he was convincing in training. 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."
Until that fateful intervention from Welbeck, which came only 12 minutes into his return, Arsenal seemed to be constructing a compelling argument for why Wenger's reluctance to sign a new striker this season could ultimately cost them in the title race.
Although Olivier Giroud's cushioned header for Theo Walcott's goal was as perfectly executed as any assist Mesut Ozil has conjured up this season, and Giroud's hold-up play was largely exemplary against a commanding Leicester defence, his finishing was poor, a succession of headed chances being glanced off target and Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel clawing a low shot away. Alexis Sanchez was even worse, the Chilean skewing shot after shot off target as he turned in one of his worst performances in an Arsenal shirt.
More predictable was Per Mertesacker's header wide on 85 minutes, the German looking about as confident as a grade one tuba player being asked to fill in at the last minute for a concert pianist at the Royal Albert Hall, as he suddenly realised he was expected to score when finding himself free in the box to meet a cross from Ozil.
The fact that Arsenal's first goal came from their first shot on target suggested a clinical streak that was in truth absent from their wasteful performance. The more telling fact was that it came as late as the 71st minute, Walcott finishing well from Giroud's dreamy header into his path.
Leicester's loss of Danny Simpson to a red card after 54 minutes could have galvanised Arsenal. Instead, Walcott's goal aside, it seemed to panic them. All the expectation and pressure was on the home side to complete their comeback from Vardy's first half penalty, won by Vardy himself when using a wayward limb from Nacho Monreal to propel himself to the ground. Score another goal, win the game, get to within two points in the title race. It was a simple equation, but shots were hurried and chances fluffed, Aaron Ramsey joining Giroud and Sanchez in having his brain gripped by nerves in front of goal as he spurned a number of openings.
But what at one stage looked likely to be one of the most damaging games of Wenger's near 20-year reign at Arsenal supplied one of the most thrilling moments as Welbeck strolled onto the pitch to mark his return from a lengthy injury, and then scored a header in the 95th minute which reignited Arsenal's title challenge and inflamed the passion of the supporters. The celebrations, as Welbeck was enveloped by the home fans, spoke of a huge joy but also huge relief.
Welbeck might not be the world-class centre-forward some Arsenal fans have been demanding, yet as his teammates wasted chance after chance in the closing stages of a game which could have sealed their fate, he produced a goal worthy of competing for a place in Arsenal folklore. Should they go onto win the league, it will be remembered as the moment when everything changed.