The initial fear for Arsenal fans was that Leicester City would field a strong and experienced side as opposed to the mixture of experienced and fringe players chosen by Mikel Arteta. That wasn’t the case with Leicester almost making as many changes as Arsenal, which certainly made it a more interesting game even for the neutral.
The really good news was the absence of Jamie Vardy which either indicates a desire to protect the player or that Brendan Rogers doesn’t think much of this particular competition. Leicester’s urban ferret has a nasty habit of feeding well at the Arsenal dining table and there’s no doubt that he would have continued to do so at Arteta’s and Arsenal’s expense.
Elneny and Willock formed an unconvincing partnership in midfield with an emphasis on speed all over the park. Saka, Nelson, Pepe, and Maitland-Niles were drafted in to cause the Leicester defence problems but six minutes in and Arsenal could easily have been two goals down.
Bernd Leno, whom some fans had dismissed after the performances of Emi Martinez, made two crucial save in less than two minutes with Iheanacho forcing a fine save (6) and that was followed by a point-blank effort from Gray who was judged offside (7).
David Luiz, whom I thought would get the captain’s armband looked assured and in control at the back but I was rather disappointed not to get a glimpse of Saliba. Luiz started showing his balling skills early on by trying to find the gaps and giving the youngsters a chance to chase, like eager young pups in a park chasing a launched stick.
Maddison, who was linked with Arsenal a season or so ago, was the pick of the Leicester City players and he went close on numerous occasions including his bar rattling effort in the 39th minute. Arsenal were the better team for the first 45 minutes with Nelson having the best chance in the 29th minute with Ward pulling off a great save.
This was becoming a see-saw game with the pressure coming in spells that favoured both sides but although the gunners enjoyed the majority of the possession, the Foxes repeatedly looked on the brink of opening their account. Maddison tried to find a way through in the second half but his touch let him down. He’s an incredibly good player with great vision and touch and one can only imagine what he would have been like in a red and white shirt.
Arsenal had a brief spell where the game was falling away from them, which allowed Brendan Rodgers’ side too much of the ball but suddenly the visitors went through the gears (56). Up to this point, Nelson and Saka had posed the greatest threat and a shaky Leicester defence, particularly in the first half, found it hard to stop them from cutting through at will.
Arsenal finally got their breakthrough via a dreadfully untidy scramble. Pepe found room to dash into the box from the right. He looked to lay it off to an advancing teammate but the rebounded ball found the net courtesy of Fuchs. The look said it all and not one Arsenal player looked unduly concerned by their inability to fashion a sumptuous goal. This is how Arsenal used to roll back in the ’80s, soaking up pressure and then grabbing an opportunistic goal.
After the goal, one wondered which manager would summon their finest from the bench and who would deliver the win but with 60 minutes gone, Arsenal were in control of the tie and all they had to do was defend their advantage. We know how that works usually.
71 minutes on the clock and both teams changed personnel with Willian replacing the impressive Nelson and Maddison making way from Praet, but Arsenal were pressing forward looking for a second which looked increasingly likely. Nketiah nearly claimed a goal after a delightful chip caught Ward in no man’s land but Foxes Captain Morgan (not to be confused with a brand of rum) made a last-minute clearance off the line.
It was a rousing finish to a reasonably entertaining game with Gray driving a ball down Leno’s throat straight after the action had been at the host’s end. As the clock counted down, Perez squandered a great chance (81) with a wayward header but Arsenal still looked relatively untroubled, even though it was now all Leicester.
Arteta used his substitutes wisely and introduced fresh legs in the form of Ceballos for Willock and Bellerin for Saka just to run down the clock. The Spaniard has been working his way back to full fitness and has shown glimpses of what he can do. He found his stride on his arrival in the 87th minute and was soon involved in another key moment, one that would put the game beyond Leicester’s reach.
Bellerin received the ball and you immediately sensed that the right-back would have a head-down moment before hitting the accelerator. He then slalomed his way into the opposition’s area before delivering a neat ball to Nketiah. Leicester should have cleared the danger but didn’t and Nketiah, who had to dig it out from beneath his tangled feet, stumbled forward and produced a toe-poke to claim another match-winning goal and ushered the Gunners to a 2-0 lead. I’ve not been entirely convinced by the lad but he works hard and delivers, what I do know.