LONDON, February 15 – Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger confessed that he had glimpsed the grim apparition of Premier League title failures past during his side’s nerve-jangling 2-1 victory over leaders Leicester City.
At half-time of Sunday’s table-topping showdown at the Emirates Stadium, Leicester led 1-0 through Jamie Vardy’s penalty and Arsenal were staring down the barrel of an eight-point deficit to the summit.
But after Leicester’s Danny Simpson was sent off, substitutes Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck struck to lift Wenger’s side to within two points of first place and rekindle hopes of a first league crown since 2004.
“A loss today (Sunday) would have been massive,” Wenger told his post-match press conference.
“Even after that you get all the negative vibes, the belief goes down. It would have been much more difficult.
“We would not have given up, but eight points is three games to come back. We would need to win three, they would need to lose three.”
Welbeck’s goal, a 95th-minute header on his return from a 10-month injury lay-off, sets Arsenal up nicely for a run of games that sees them tackle Hull City in the FA Cup and holders Barcelona in the Champions League before returning to league action at Manchester United on February 28.
They must also visit second-place Tottenham Hotspur and fourth-place Manchester City over the season’s closing weeks, but Wenger said the nature of the victory over Leicester would give them great heart.
“It will strengthen our belief that we are in the fight,” said the Frenchman, whose side had won 2-0 at Bournemouth on their previous outing.
“Because we had a bit of a dodgy spell — with Liverpool 3-3, Stoke 0-0, we lost (1-0) against Chelsea, played 0-0 at home against Southampton — so now after that we win two games.
“We’re still mathematically in the fight and that will strengthen our belief of course.”
Wenger revealed that he had waited until the last minute before deciding to put Welbeck on the bench following his return from a long-term knee problem.
– ‘I have a dream’ –
“You know Danny Welbeck. He is a great guy, with a great mentality. He worked extremely hard. That is why he is fit,” Wenger said.
“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.
“Everyone is extremely happy for him because he has been out for 10 months. That’s an eternity for a player. Let’s not forget he has not played one minute for us.”
Vardy’s goal on the stroke of half-time, his 19th of the season, put Leicester on course for another big win after their 3-1 success at Manchester City the previous weekend.
But Simpson’s dismissal after two bookings — for impeding Alexis Sanchez and holding back Olivier Giroud — changed the course of the game and they finished the weekend with Spurs and Arsenal breathing down their necks.
Having only previously seen his side beaten twice, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri has not had much to rail against this season, but he declared himself “very angry” with referee Martin Atkinson’s decision to send Simpson off.
In stark contrast to Arsenal, Leicester now have two weeks to prepare for their next league assignment — a home game with Norwich City — and Ranieri said that he would be giving his players a week off.
“It’s the same as if you won the match,” he said.
“‘Go home, and we will see you next Monday,’ because they deserve it. They made a fantastic performance today. They go, I don’t know where. Dubai maybe. They go wherever they want.”
Asked if Leicester’s title dream was still alive, a smiling Ranieri answered cryptically.
“I have a dream,” he said. “But I don’t tell you what is my dream.”