Monday, December 21, 2015

Monday Night Football: Arsenal survive late push from City, put the heat on Leicester

Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City
Unless you're one of the few who really believe that Leicester City have what it takes to maintain their title run for the second half of the season, these two clubs are in the best positions to compete for the top spot when all is said and done. Tonight's winner would be able to take the inside track in the race. Both sides are facing injuries, but City is getting healthier than Arsenal as they returned Sergio Aguero to the lineup for the first time in a while. The Gunners, meanwhile, were without their killer threat Alexis Sanchez.

The first half was defined by both sides bottling each other up in the midfield and some physical play. Just after the half hour mark, the action truly opened up. First, Kevin de Bruyne barely sent a shot wide of the far post at the tail end of a two on one break. Moments later,  in the 33rd minute, Theo Walcott blasted home a stunner from the edge of the penalty area to make it one-nil to the Arsenal. As the crowd continued to spur the Gunners on, Arsenal kept pressing forward. In first half stoppage time, Manchester City turned the ball over at the half way line and allowed Olivier Giroud to continue his hot streak and double Arsenal's lead with a well placed shot past the far post in first half stoppage time.

One would figure that with a 2-0 lead, Arsenal would come out with a more defensive posture. That ended up being far from the case today. The Gunners, while digging in on defense a little early on, actually became more threatening on the attack as the half wore on. Just before the hour mark, a nice passing play between Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil almost resulted in the third goal.

Things never really looked good for Manchester City. Their chances took a slight hit when Sergio Aguero was forced to depart after taking an awkward elbow to the side of the head on an aerial challenge. Any chances they had were either non-threatening and easily snuffed out by the Gunners or foiled by their own inadequacy. Even when Arsenal's defense was caught out of position a poor decision or weak shot would make sure it didn't have any impact.

That changed in the 82nd minute when Yaya Toure took a shot from the corner of the penalty area that left Petr Cech and the rest of the Arsenal defenders helpless as they watched it float into the top corner of the net. The remaining eight minutes plus stoppage time were controlled by Manchester City. They controlled the ball, but couldn't unlock the difficult Arsenal defending that saw all ten outfield players jamming the penalty area.

The Gunners enter Christmas in second place in the Premier League. They are two points back of Leicester City first and four clear of Manchester City in third. To make it better for Arsenal fans, they are seven points clear inside the top four. 

The main knock on the Gunners heading into the season was their lack of improvement anywhere except goalkeeper. There is little doubt that the arrival of Petr Cech between the sticks has helped Arsenal stay alive in a couple games, but most thought that no new outfield players would spell doom for them. Instead of adding new weapons, it looks like their current ones are just developing quite well. Mesut Ozil, after spending most of his first two seasons with Arsenal in the infirmary, has stormed the gates with 15 assists, more than any top flight player in Europe. Olivier Giroud has found his goal scoring form. Normally injured Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey are both staying healthy. Their midfield has played so well that it's hard to remember that Jack Wilshere hasn't played a competitive fixture for them this season. Then there is the emergence of Joel Campbell, who has stepped in for the injured Alexis Sanchez and shown us the form that made him a star for Costa Rica during the last World Cup.

Arsenal are a real threat, but they are still in second place behind Leicester, who don't seem like going down without a fight. For what it's worth, the Gunners whacked the Foxes at the King Power Stadium 5-2 back in September. Arsenal are the only top five side that Leicester have not earned at least a point against. They are yet to play Manchester City, but the two meet on December 29. Speaking of Manchester City, despite looking uninspired for about 81 minutes tonight, are also still a strong candidate to lift the trophy in May. The title race looks to be between these three, if you have honest belief that Leicester are the real deal. If not, it now looks like its Arsenal's trophy to lose.

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