Saturday 18 November 2017

Giroud has the last laugh as Arsenal edge epic opener

Arsenal 4 Leicester 3

Jamie Vardy and Granit Xhaka battle it out at the Emirates Stadium. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Jamie Vardy and Granit Xhaka battle it out at the Emirates Stadium. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Jason Burt

Pop the corks. The Premier League is back. And this was intoxicating stuff.

Just as it seemed that Jamie Vardy, with two predatory goals, was again having a party, back came Arsenal to launch their own celebrations.

Having lost 4-3 at home to Liverpool on the opening day of last season, they won by the same scoreline in an extraordinary encounter under the Friday night lights.

Late goals from substitutes Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud won it for Arsene Wenger's men. Just as it seemed the soul-searching was about to begin again for Arsenal, they turned it around to grab an improbable lift-off.

At times they were thrilling, with Alexandre Lacazette looking a fine addition who will score a bucket of goals, but they were also shocking, indefensible in their inability to defend.

Attack

It was some start for Lacazette, on his Premier League debut, after his club record £54m move from Lyon. First attack. First goal.

The ball was swung out to Hector Bellerin, who chested it down to tee up Mohamed Elneny for the cross that was met by Lacazette, stooping to steer his header powerfully beyond Kasper Schmeichel.

Just 85 seconds had elapsed. The Emirates erupted. Had a new hero arrived? It looked like it, judging by the striker's cool-cat celebration.

Arsenal's season was underway. And then it was punctured as Leicester hit back with a header of their own and another that probably should have been prevented.

Marc Albrighton's cross went deep, goalkeeper Petr Cech was caught out and Leicester's own debutant Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal for Shinji Okazaki to beat Granit Xhaka to it and send his header into the empty net.

There were just 160 seconds between the goals - and there was no let up.

This was the first time in the 129-year history of football in England that a top-flight season had kicked off on a Friday.

It was as though people could not wait and it felt like that with the rapid start. Attacks were unleashed; defences were undone.

Arsenal pushed back and cut through Leicester with Nacho Monreal pulling the ball across for Danny Welbeck, whose goal-bound shot struck Maguire on the hip.

Soon after, Mesut Ozil was given the opportunity to strike a half-volley, with Schmeichel, just about, turning it away for a corner.

Just as it seemed Leicester would be overwhelmed, it was they who struck again with a woeful, lazy pass from Xhaka being intercepted by Marc Albrighton, who sped down the left and crossed the ball for Vardy to guide it into the net from close range.

It was a trademark Vardy fox-in-the-box strike, but Xhaka had been culpable for both goals.

"We're going to win the league... again," chanted the gleeful Leicester supporters while Arsenal were rocking, and the hosts could have fallen further behind when Christian Fuchs broke down the left. His cross was met by Okazaki, whose header went narrowly wide.

Arsenal were depleted in defence - no Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, Gabriel.

They appeared painfully vulnerable, hesitant, with neither Xhaka nor Elneny providing the defensive shield and Leicester ar sharper to the ball.

The discontent inevitably began to brew. Knife-edge football already, which could have been blunted had the Gunners been granted the penalty they demanded when Sead Kolasinac tried to lift the ball over Wilfred Ndidi, only for it to strike his outstretched arm. Referee Mike Dean was unmoved.

But Arsenal did switch the mood when Lacazette's shot was smothered. The ball broke to Kolasinac (what was he doing in the area?) and he calmly passed it back to Welbeck to tap it into the goal. They were level.

It was a scrappy goal and the relief was palpable, although Leicester did not fold. They came close with Riyad Mahrez, quiet until then, sending a raking pass - after Xhaka again lost possession - to pick out Vardy, who would have scampered through on goal had Cech not gambled coming off his line.

Cech intervened again as Mahrez, suddenly alive, twisted, turned and sent a rising shot that the goalkeeper tipped over.

Once more, the chance came as Arsenal lost the ball. They paid for it. From Mahrez's corner Xhaka allowed Vardy a free run and, although Monreal tried to react, the striker rose to glance his header home.

Sprung

Bellerin should have levelled, sprung by Welbeck, but Schmeichel smothered and the tension began to rise again.

Interestingly, Arsenal abandoned the back three. On came Giroud and Ramsey, whose first involvement was to head the ball just wide, and Bellerin was sent across to left-back in a four-man defence.

Arsenal were now two up-front and the cavalry charge began with Ramsey finally making the breakthrough as he was superbly picked out by Xhaka - amending for earlier errors - to control brilliantly and drive a fine right-foot shot back across Schmeichel.

Could they now win it? Lacazette thought he had done so, as he danced through to create space, but Schmeichel turned it over.

However, there was to be one final twist. From the corner, Giroud planted a powerful header that struck the bar, bounced down over the line before being clawed out by Schmeichel.

The goal was given - by the goal-line technology - and Arsenal careered over the line. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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