Arsenal 1 Leicester 0: Robert Huth own goal boosts Gunners' top four hopes

James Benge
REUTERS

Arsenal’s hopes of Champions League qualification were saved by the unlikeliest of sources as a deflected Nacho Monreal strike gave them a 1-0 win over Leicester City.

The Spanish defender, who had scored his first goal in nearly two years against Manchester City on Sunday, may not be credited for the winner after his 86th minute strike cannoned off two Leicester defenders - with a vital touch off Robert Huth - on its way past Kasper Schmeichel.

But if he is he will not have scored a more crucial goal in his career after he saved his side from what seemed certain failure to reach the top four.

Arsene Wenger’s side closed the gap on the top four to four points amid familiar scenes in North London at this time of year, as the Gunners did just enough to claim three points.

It was hardly the ideal preparation for Sunday’s visit to Tottenham but Arsenal will not be too concerned. Their hunt for the top four is still alive.

Possibly with one eye on Sunday’s trip up the Seven Sisters Road Wenger shuffled his deck, making four changes to the 3-4-3 that had brought him victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final.

Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs came in as the wing-backs with Monreal taking Rob Holding’s place on the left of the back three. Francis Coquelin also replaced Aaron Ramsey.

But the most significant and controversial change came at the tip of the attack, where Theo Walcott replaced Olivier Giroud. The 28-year-old had spent the pre-season insisting that his long-held desire to be Arsenal’s number nine was at its end and had enjoyed a fine season on the right flank.

The opening 45 minutes offered the most convincing case for why the experiment of Walcott leading the line was ditched in the first place, as he could consistently be relied upon to desert the areas of the field where a centre-forward ought to be found.

On two occasions he crafted space in the box, the first seeing him poke a tame shot at Kasper Schmeichel. The second was far more problematic. In the classic spot from which Walcott gets so many of his goals – 15 or so yards from goal, to the right of centre – he passed up a shooting chance, sending the ball outside the box to Granit Xhaka.

Unsurprisingly the revival was over by the interval, Alexis Sanchez moved to the tip of the attack having gone closest to finding the opener with a rasping effort that clipped the cross bar in stoppage time.

Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez both hit Cech’s side-netting on rare bursts forward and the latter brought an acrobatic save out of Arsenal’s goalkeeper with a close-range volley. But in truth Leicester seemed happy with a point, setting up in two tight banks of four and challenging Mesut Ozil to thread his way through.

A Danny Simpson toe or Yohan Benalouane flick were often the difference between security and a goal as the second half wore on, with Robert Huth making the crucial intervention after Bellerin had found Sanchez in the area. There was no margin for error as the former Chelsea centre-back dived in, whipping the ball out for a corner as his opponent readied himself for the killer blow.

Desperation grew in the Arsenal ranks as Laurent Koscielny spurned two chances inside the area. Wenger threw Danny Welbeck on in place of Gibbs with 25 minutes left, ditching the back three in a bid for greater numbers in attack. Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey were on soon after.

But they were unable to barge their way through the resolute, robust Leicester back four. It would take something altogether more peculiar, as the ball broke to Monreal in the area. His effort was not truly struck but he will not care.

There was still a storm for Arsenal to weather in the closing minutes, which ended in farce and fury as Sanchez feigned a blow to the head after Christian Fuchs hurled his throw in at the Chilean, who was not the requisite two yards away. Mike Jones was right to show the forward a yellow but his opponent was fortunate to receive no punishment for what could have amounted to violent conduct. Similarly lucky was Yohan Benalouane, who deserved more than a yellow for ploughing through the back of Olivier Giroud.

It was a stormy ending to a hard-fought game but Arsenal are no longer at the stage of the season where quality counts. All that matters is the three points they somehow left the Emirates with.

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