By Rob Kelly at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal returned to winning ways with a hard-fought victory against Leicester City at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night.
After an uncertain start in which the visitors twice went close through Riyad Mahrez, the Gunners took the lead in the 27th minute when Laurent Koscielny poked home from a corner.
With the majestic Mesut Ozil pulling the strings, the home side were up and running - if still not quite at full tilt against opponents determined to make life difficult.
Indeed Mahrez came within inches of an equaliser for the Foxes, whose lively performance belied their status as the Premier League’s bottom club.
But just when the game appeared to be in the balance, Theo Walcott extended Arsenal’s advantage before the interval by firing in from 10 yards.
However, Leicester’s tenacious performance saw them reduce the arrears just after the hour mark through Andrej Kramaric to set up a tense finale.
The Croatian forward had a glorious opportunity to equalise with 12 minutes remaining, but sent a chip straight into David Ospina’s hands when through on goal.
Despite a late Foxes flourish, the hosts held on for a welcome three points that moves them up into fourth place - albeit possibly only temporarily.
SETTING THE SCENE
With an immediate chance to make amends for Saturday’s derby defeat to Tottenham, Arsene Wenger would have been forgiven for quietly welcoming the arrival of Leicester.
The Premier League’s bottom club had experienced a turbulent build up to the game with confusion over manager Nigel Pearson’s future. It was hardly ideal preparation for a side that had not won in their previous 18 matches against Arsenal.
The big pre-match news was the return of Alexis Sanchez after a two-game absence with a hamstring problem, and the Chilean was handed the responsibility of spearheading the attack at the expense of Olivier Giroud.
It was a timely boost for the Gunners, with their go-to man having scored eight goals in his last eight games at Emirates Stadium and assisting five more. In addition, he had also been on target in the 1-1 draw at the King Power Stadium at the end of August - and after an enforced layoff, he was raring to go.
Elsewhere, Walcott came in on the right flank and Tomas Rosicky replaced Aaron Ramsey in midfield. Ozil - in the middle of a purple patch that had seen him claim three goals in three games - made his 50th start for the Gunners in an attacking line up that promised goals.
For all the uncertainty hanging over them, Leicester certainly displayed no ill effects during a confident opening spell at Emirates Stadium.
Within minutes they had come close to opening the scoring when Mahrez’s shot deflected just wide, and the Algerian had another chance soon afterwards but flashed a fierce drive across the face of goal.
The visitors were dictating play, but finally the Gunners burst into life on the quarter-hour as Ozil pierced the Leicester defence with a cute ball to the onrushing Walcott. The England international had scored six goals in his previous six Premier League starts, but this time saw his shot blocked by Mark Schwarzer.
It should have proved a spark for Wenger’s side, yet still they remained curiously on the back foot until Ozil began to grow in influence.
The World Cup winner was nominally stationed on the left, but his frequent forays into more central positions began to cause real problems for the visitors as he weaved his magic.
One run in the 24th minute saw him combine beautifully with Alexis in the area before stabbing a disguised shot at goal that Schwarzer could only palm around the post. From the resulting Ozil corner, Koscielny barrelled his way through the area to meet the ball at the near post and calmly stroke it into the bottom corner to give the Gunners the lead.
While the goal helped settle any remaining nerves, Leicester continued to play with confidence - with Mahrez their most dangerous outlet. The 23-year-old’s movement was causing real problems for the Arsenal defence and he came perilously close to an equaliser with a curling shot that flew inches wide.
But just when the Foxes started to sense blood, the hosts extended their lead.
It was no shock that Ozil was to the fore once again, the German playmaker crashing a fierce shot at goal from 25 yards that Schwarzer could only palm back into the box. There was still a lot to be done, but Walcott reacted quickest to drill a first-time drive into the bottom corner at speed.
It was a fine way to end a half that had perhaps proved harder work for Wenger’s side than the scoreline suggested.
If their start to the first half had been sluggish, they certainly did not make the same mistake after the interval. Within a minute there was a penalty shout for an apparent handball, before Rosicky sent a fierce volley just wide.
But despite their advantage, the Gunners could not quite kill off their opponents and they continued to cause real problems.
They finally had their reward in the 61st minute when, moments after Kramaric had been denied by a good save from Ospina, the Croatian striker reduced the deficit after a scramble from a corner.
It set up a nervy final half-hour to a game that had proved problematic throughout.
Santi Cazorla soon went close with a fizzing drive, before the action returned to the other end of the pitch as Mahrez drilled another shot wide when perhaps he should have scored.
Giroud and Aaron Ramsey stepped off the bench in the final quarter to add fresh impetus to a game that was now very firmly in the balance, but still Leicester pushed on.
Kramaric should have levelled the scores in the 78th minute when played through on goal, but sent his chip into the outstretched hands of the onrushing Ospina.
It proved the last chance of any note as Arsenal held on for a vital win. They may have been short of their best, but at this juncture of the season all that matters is the three points - and, after a major sweat, they had them. Phew.
Referee: Mike Jones
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