Renowned and sometimes derided for its traditional emphasis on the aerial game, the English Premier League and its title race presented two vital and compelling matches Wednesday that turned on a pair of headers and produced a tie at the top.
Arsenal and Leicester City are knotted up (43 points) after they played difficult away matches Wednesday. One team came through, the other didn’t.
The Gunners took a two-point lead atop the standings into the day’s play and led at Anfield, 3-2, deep into the second half but surrendered an equalizer to Liverpool that left the match tied, 3-3. Leicester City faced its own road test at White Hart Lane, but unlike their more fancied London rivals, prevailed, 1-0, to pull back a share of the league lead.
Three points behind the co-leaders is Manchester City, which struggled to another disappointing result at home; a 0-0 tie with Everton marked by several sharp Tim Howard saves. Spurs’ loss to Leicester, a crucial defeat psychologically as well as mathematically, dropped them four points behind Man City and seemingly confirmed a suspicion that the best their fans can hope for is a Champions League place and not a championship.
Leicester City and Liverpool exploited the aerial game to earn those results, leaving their opponents ruing failure to defend a most basic element of English play.
A rollicking, back-and-forth game that Arsenal seemed to have won ended up tied after Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp sent on 6-foot-3 forward Christian Benteke and midfielder Joe Allen as substitutes. The simple, predictable, direct approach worked: in the 90th minute, Benteke won a ball in the air and knocked it down for Allen to sweep into the net.
Leicester took the field against Tottenham goalless in its last three league games and apparently set for the slide down the standings that so many have been forecasting for the past month or so. The teams had battled to a 2-2 tie in the FA Cup on Sunday, and Leicester manager Claudio Raneiri made nine changes to his starting lineup for the rematch.
Tottenham nearly scored when a Harry Kane shot was partially saved by Kasper Schmeichel and bounced back off the crossbar, but Spurs couldn’t sustain their momentum and Leicester City tightened up its defense. Another shutout loomed until the 83rd minute, when Spurs neglected to mark defender Robert Huth –- who played for Raneiri at Chelsea more than a decade ago – on a corner kick. Huth didn’t even need to jump as he leaned into Christian Fuchs’ outswinger and drilled a powerful header into the top far corner.
Ordinarily, Arsenal’s securing of a tie at Anfield after twice falling behind would be lauded, as would a record of four wins in the last six games. But instead the Gunners are answering tough questions and occasionally being reminded of the lead they held two seasons ago. The Premier League leaders on New Year’s Day, 2014, stumbled through the spring and eventually finished fourth.
There are some ominous signs. Mezut Ozil’s unquestioned brilliance often dims in big games, and most of Arsenal's slick play bypassed him. Drenched and dispirited, he was substituted after a fairly anonymous 87 minutes. Acquiring keeper Petr Cech from Chelsea last summer addressed a chronic need, yet still Arsenal leaks goals at the worst possible times. Good teams will occasionally struggle through bad games, but seldom are champions-to-be thrashed, 4-0, as was Arsenal at Southampton on Boxing Day.
Leicester is under no such pressure and enjoying its time in the limelight. Though Jamie Vardy has cooled off from a torrid start – 15 goals in the first 16 games of the season that included strikes in a record 11 consecutive matches– and Huth’s header snapped a scoring drought of 373 minutes in league play, the Foxes are in this hunt. They face a daunting gauntlet in early February of consecutive matches against Liverpool at home and Manchester City and Arsenal away, yet by holding firm and striking late against Tottenham showed a resilience that should propel them into Europe one way or another.
Many incidents and factors will shape the Premier League race in the final four months of the season. Injuries, fatigue, refereeing decisions and strange bounces will all play their parts. The second half of the season is when deficiencies are either corrected or exploited, and, presumably, pretenders like Leicester are exposed. Not necessarily.
On Wednesday, gritty Leicester City taught two star-studded London clubs an important lesson; when points are on the line and the ball is in the air, all that matters is performance and production.