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Gamble pays off for Arteta as come-from-behind win raises Gunners’ top-four hopes

Leicester City 1 Arsenal 3

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Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta celebrates with Willian after yesterday's victory against Leicester City. Photo: Reuters/Tim Keeton

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta celebrates with Willian after yesterday's victory against Leicester City. Photo: Reuters/Tim Keeton

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta celebrates with Willian after yesterday's victory against Leicester City. Photo: Reuters/Tim Keeton

An hour before kick-off, Mikel Arteta stood accused of gambling with his Premier League season by playing a weakened team and risking a defeat which would have left Arsenal as a speck in Brendan Rodgers’ wing-mirrors.

Perhaps Arteta does know what he is doing after all. Arsenal’s hopes of Champions League football next season may still depend on winning the Europa League, but this proved that they are in there fighting.

Bukayo Saka, their frequent inspiration, was not even required to come off the bench, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang played only the final six minutes, as Arsenal secured a deserved victory.

This will provide Arteta with huge encouragement for the final months, as Arsenal proved they can win without two of the key men who have carried them so many times this season.

The maligned Willian produced arguably his best performance for the club yet, while Nicolas Pepe was also excellent.

Arsenal’s hopes of a top-four finish remain remote but at least they proved their domestic campaign is not flatlining just yet.

The only disappointment for the Gunners was the withdrawal of attacking midfielder Emile Smith Rowe, who sustained a muscular injury in the second-half.

Arteta said: “The team is really improving and taking a direction that I like. I’m really happy we could make a lot of changes and still produce a performance. It’s not that we have to rotate – I want to rotate and give a chance to the players for the way they train.

“The senior players are the ones that have to drive us forward and then we can have something with the young talented players that we have, but it can’t be the opposite way around.

“They need to have that leadership and be accountable in the team as they are the ones that have to produce week in, week out for some stability.”

While Arsenal were resurgent, this was a worrying afternoon for Rodgers and Leicester. After their dismal exit from Europe on Thursday, their performance was riddled with fatigue and lacking intensity, with a deeply concerning injury for winger Harvey Barnes early in the second half.

Barnes was stretchered off with a knee injury and minutes later Arsenal added their third goal to effectively claim the three points. The anger of Kasper Schmeichel was clear for much of the afternoon, with the Leicester goalkeeper frequently filling the air with expletives that would have required a ‘parental advisory’ caution.

Arteta must have feared a chastening afternoon when Youri Tielemans took full advantage of some shambolic defending from Arsenal after just six minutes. Inexplicably, the Belgian midfielder was allowed to run 30 yards unchallenged from the right flank into the penalty area before driving a low shot across Bernd Leno.

It was the worst possible start for Arteta, who was already under scrutiny for making so many changes, with Thomas Partey also named among the substitutes. But Arsenal did respond, and were denied a penalty by a Var review seven minutes later after Wilfred Ndidi caught Pepe just outside Leicester’s area.

They equalised in the 39th minute, with David Luiz unmarked and rising to direct a header into the corner from Willian’s free-kick.

With the first half in added time, Arsenal moved in front. Ndidi clearly handled Pepe’s shot in the box and after referee Paul Tierney reviewed the incident on his TV monitor, Alexandre Lacazette swept home from the spot.

The momentum of the game had completely shifted. Leicester looked tired, three days after being knocked out of the Europa League by Slavia Prague. Their problems increased when Barnes was stretchered off early in the second-half after appearing to overstretch his knee in an attempt to retrieve the ball.

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Arsenal added a third in the 52nd minute, with Pepe presented with a simple task of putting away the loose ball after Leicester’s defence were outnumbered. It appears Leicester’s congested season, and their growing injury list, is finally catching up with them.

Their top-four hopes are still very much alive and, perhaps, Arteta would say the same about Arsenal.

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