Welbeck rises to the occasion for gritty Gunners
Arsenal 2-1 Leicester City
Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30
Danny Welbeck only joined Arsenal in August 2014 because, in Louis van Gaal's opinion, he did not score enough goals.
Yet there is nothing more valuable than a forward who can score important goals and he certainly picked his moment to deliver a truly significant strike for Arsene Wenger's Gunners.
Out of action for 10 months with a knee injury, the former Manchester United striker was an 83rd-minute final throw of the dice by Wenger, with Leicester clinging on for the draw which would have enabled them to maintain a five-point lead over their title rivals.
But on his first appearance of the season, as a replacement for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he rose above the Leicester defence to direct Mesut Ozil's free-kick beyond Kasper Schmeichel with a glancing header which won the game and provided a real fillip to the club's title ambitions.
Leicester, who played the final 36 minutes with 10 men after right-back Danny Simpson was sent off, were floored by a cruel, late blow.
League championships are won and lost in such moments and only time will tell how much Welbeck's goal will inspire Arsenal and hurt Claudio Ranieri's players.
For Welbeck, the personal impact of his late intervention can only be imagined. The England forward had become the forgotten man of the Emirates as he battled in the shadows against his knee problem, but Wenger has always retained faith in Welbeck's qualities.
True, he has rarely scored the volume of goals to reflect his talent and attributes, but this is a player with a goal against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on his CV and also a winning strike against his former club, at Old Trafford, in an FA Cup quarter-final last season.
When it matters, and when the stakes are at their highest, Welbeck has shown that he can deliver and rarely will it have mattered more to Arsenal than in the dying seconds of this game.
But while Welbeck was welcomed back into the dressing-room by team-mates singing his name, the key for Arsenal now is to ensure that his goal becomes the platform for a surge to the title rather than an excuse for another selfie in front of the wood-panelled wardrobes of the Emirates home locker room.
The raucous celebrations around the stadium at full-time reflected the magnitude of the victory, but Leicester remain two points clear, with an appealing run-in all the way through to May, so Arsenal still have their work cut out if they are to end their 12-year wait for the title.
They displayed the required grit, patience and fighting spirit to win this game, however, after Leicester withstood an early onslaught to take a half-time lead through Jamie Vardy.
Just 40 seconds had elapsed when Oxlade-Chamberlain spurned the first clear chance of the game by squaring the ball for Olivier Giroud when the far corner of the Leicester goal seemed the more appropriate destination for the ball.
Perhaps it was nerves on Oxlade-Chamberlain's part, another example of Arsenal sometimes wanting to walk the ball into the net, but Leicester saw out the opening quarter of an hour before building up a head of steam, with Vardy denied an opener on 16 minutes when Petr Cech produced a stunning save to keep out his far-post header.
Leicester, propelled by the defensive discipline of Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante's incredible energy, were content to soak up Arsenal pressure, with Alexis Sanchez and Giroud going close, before hitting the home side on the counter-attack.
Cech was forced into action again on 39 minutes when his outstretched right hand tipped Kante's curling strike over before Vardy struck from the penalty spot after being fouled by Nacho Monreal.
Vardy made the most of the Spaniard's dangling right leg, ensuring contact was made, but it was a foul nonetheless and referee Martin Atkinson was right to point to the spot.
At this point Arsenal faced a test of their resolve. Could they bounce back and overcome a dogged, well-organised Leicester buoyed by growing self-belief?
The answer was yes, because they went for the throat from the first kick of the second half, with Ozil and Aaron Ramsey both going close to scoring inside the opening minute.
Simpson quickly earned his first booking, for a foul on Sanchez, and his second came five minutes later following a needless tug on Giroud's sleeve. Two yellow cards in five minutes was naïve on Simpson's part and his lack of discipline left his team exposed to an Arsenal onslaught for the final 36 minutes.
Ranieri attempted to bolster his defensive options by replacing Riyad Mahrez with Marcin Wasilewski, leaving Vardy up front as a pacy threat on the counter-attack.
But the change merely invited Arsenal to pour forward, deep into Leicester territory.
Defending so deeply was a bold move by Ranieri considering the attacking talents of Ozil, Sanchez and Co. So the red waves continued to roll towards Schmeichel's goal.
Giroud headed the ball over and Sanchez shot wide before Theo Walcott hauled the home side level on 72 minutes with a classy volley from six yards after Giroud had headed down Hector Bellerin's cross.
The dam had burst, but a draw was not enough for Arsenal and they maintained their siege of the Leicester goal.
Robert Huth escaped the attentions of the referee when he blocked Giroud's volley with his right arm before Per Mertesacker headed a golden chance wide from six yards out after being picked out unmarked by Ozil on 86 minutes.
The clock ticked down, Schmeichel saved brilliantly from Giroud and Leicester were on the brink of holding on for a point as they entered the fourth minute of stoppage time.
But Wasilewski's rash challenge on Monreal gifted Arsenal a free-kick 30 yards out, leaving Ozil with one final chance to create an opening.
The German stepped up to the plate, floating a sumptuous delivery to Welbeck, who did what he does best.
He may not score many, but if Welbeck continues to contribute goals like that, he could yet be the man who makes the crucial difference in the title race.
Independent News Service