Three things learned from Arsenal’s amazing win vs. Leicester

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LONDON — For most of the opening 83 minutes it looked like Arsenal would start up the season with their now customary demoralizing defeat.

Leicester City rolled into the Emirates Stadium on Friday night and led the Gunners 3-2 with seven minutes left for what looked like a shock win. Hold your horses.

Two goals from subs Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud in two minutes late on saw Arsenal go 4-3 up as they started off the Premier League season in incredible, breathtaking fashion.

A classic PL encounter saw Arsenal lead 1-0 after 94 seconds. Then Leicester went 2-1 up. Then Arsenal pulled it back to 2-2. Then Leicester went 3-2 up and then Arsenal’s late two-goal show saw them take all three points.

Here’s what we learned from a pulsating encounter in north London to open up the new PL campaign.


ARSENAL’S INCREDIBLE SPIRIT RESURFACES

This Arsenal side has a true never say die attitude. Numerous times at the back end of last season they found winners late on. They did it again to win the FA Cup in May. And they outlasted Chelsea to win on penalty kicks last weekend at Wembley.

Even though they showcased most of their flaws on Friday, you can’t fault the spirit of Arsene Wenger‘s men.

Given their poor opening day record (one win in seven before Friday) we should’ve expected another opening day collapse but given their fine preseason form and an impressive display against Chelsea to win the Community Shield last weekend at Wembley, this inept display against Leicester City was hard to believe. Yet somehow they still grabbed all three points to keep the feel-good factor intact. For now.

Petr Cech was shaky on Leicester’s first and second goals. Young center back Rob Holding (he was subbed out in the second half) was targeted by Christian Fuchs and Marc Albrighton with Mesut Ozil and Hector Bellerin giving him no protection. Central midfielders Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka were nervous on the ball and slack in possession to gift Leicester the ball in dangerous positions time and time again. Slack zonal marking allowed Jamie Vardy to make it 3-2.

Wenger was left shaking his head on the sidelines for much of the opening 67 minutes of this game with Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud brought on to try and rescue a point. Somehow they got more than that.

Those subs forced a desperate defensive reshuffle which saw a winger (Oxlade-Chamberlain) at right back, two left backs (Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac) at center back and a right back (Bellerin) at left back, and some of the reasons for this disjointed display were due to Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Per Mertesacker all being unavailable. That’s acceptable but perhaps proved that Arsenal’s second-string defenders may not be as good as we thought.

Following his new two-year contract the pressure had eased on Wenger over the summer after improved displays in April and May with a 3-4-3 system, an FA Cup victory to end last season and the signing of Alexandre Lacazette.

Wenger will get plenty of the plaudits once again for a dramatic opening night win which saw his two subs work perfectly.

Still, with no end in sight to the Ozil and Alexis Sanchez contract saga, how long will it be before a shock defeat, which this easily could have been, will force the “Wenger Out” banners to appear once again?


SLIGHT HOPE FOR LEICESTER

There were glimpses that this season will be about much more than just settling for midtable obscurity for Leicester.

The way they ruthlessly pounced on Arsenal mistakes was highlighted by their second via a Albrighton cross for Vardy to tap home at the back post. Vintage Leicester.

They sat back, forced Arsenal into making mistakes and had Vardy’s pace on the break to hurt the Gunners. Yes, they looked shaky at times in defense with Lacazette and Welbeck combining well in and around the box, but most teams struggle with that against Arsenal.

There is no excusing the way Craig Shakespeare‘s men collapsed late in the game to have victory snatched away from them as they left north London empty handed. Yet there is hope they can play like this against most teams in the PL and win games.

Still, not the ideal start for Shakespeare as a manager who has spent plenty of cash ahead of first full season in charge in the Premier League.


LACAZETTE THE BRIGHT SPOT

It took Lacazette just 94 seconds to score in the Premier League with his second touch in England’s top-flight. The first was a kick off.

The 26-year-old Frenchman averaged a goal every 80 minutes during his Ligue 1 career with Lyon and he’s started in fine style.

Lacazette’s goalscoring ability is one thing, but his ability to link up with Arsenal’s other attackers inside the box is an added bonus. You do not get that from most poachers.

He is a menace in the box and was involved in both Welbeck’s goal to make it 2-2 and his incredible trickery and powerful shot forced Kasper Schmeichel into a fine stop which led to the corner for Giroud to score the winner.

For most of his career Lacazette is a man who has been in the right place at the right time and it seems he will carry on that trend at Arsenal.

 

Premier League Storylines: Matchweek 27

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Matchweek 27 is almost here in the Premier League and it is time to focus on the top storylines ahead of the action.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Below we take a deeper look and preview the big battles.


Lampard v. Mourinho in huge top 4 battle at Stamford Bridge [ STREAM ]

  • Chelsea v. Tottenham, Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN)

Talk about pivotal. So many storylines are swirling ahead of this one as Frank Lampard‘s Chelsea have won just four of their last 14 Premier League and are somehow still in fourth, but they are now just one point ahead of Jose Mourinho’s Spurs who at one stage were 11 points off the top four. This rivalry is always intense and both sets of players know what is expected. It may not be pretty but this London derby will be hugely important in deciding how the final months of the season pans out for both. Heung-min Son has joined Harry Kane on the injury list so Spurs will look to Steven Bergwijn and Lucas Moura for an attacking threat, while Frank Lampard is without Christian Pulisic (still) and N’Golo Kante with Tammy Abraham a doubt. The key man here could be Olivier Giroud who looks primed to play a big role either from the start or off the bench and his clinical finishing may be the difference. Expect plenty of antics from Mourinho on the sidelines as he returns to the Bridge, a place where he hasn’t won as an opposing manager since 2010 and no longer gets a warm welcome from the Chelsea faithful.


Chance for Guardiola’s boys to seal second [ STREAM ]

  • Leicester City v. Man City, Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC)

Man City have had themselves one of the toughest weeks in recent history as last Friday they were handed a two-season ban from European competitions by UEFA. Since then the fans have had their say with plenty of anti-UEFA banners and chants during their midweek home win against West Ham, while CEO Soriano has called the allegations ‘false’ and Pep Guardiola has said he will stay next season no matter what. They want all of the focus to now be on the pitch and they certainly look much better defensive with Aymeric Laporte back fit. He will have to stop Jamie Vardy and the Foxes and this should be a tight, tense game. Brendan Rodgers and Leicester sit in third and are four points back from City and if they have any hope of finishing in the second place, they need to at least not lose at the King Power Stadium. With a trip to Real Madrid coming up in the Champions League last 16 first leg next week, maybe Guardiola will rest a few starters for the trip to Leicester?


Surging Gunners, Toffees getting bounce from new managers [ STREAM ]

  • Arsenal v. Everton, Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN)

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is a former captain of Arsenal and Everton so this will always be a special game for him and as for Everton’s new man in charge, Carlo Ancelotti was linked with the Arsenal job again and again in recent seasons. Both coaches could have easily ended up in charge of their opponents this Sunday but both won’t care about that as the teams they are managing now are flying. Everton have lost just once in their last 11 games and have dragged themselves from a relegation battle to in the battle for European qualification. Arsenal sit one place and two points behind them as defensive improvement have been key to both teams turning things around. They’ve spent big money to add exciting attacking talents but their recent success is more about adding structure. This will be a tight game. That said, the Gunners are unbeaten in their last 23 league games against the Toffees, winning 19 times, and for whatever reason they just love playing against Everton in the Premier League.


Two steps forward for Man United? [ STREAM ]

  • Man United v. Watford, Sunday (Watch live, 9 a.m. ET on NBCSN)

They rode their luck with VAR calls going their way in a big win at Chelsea on Monday but all of a sudden Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Man United are just three points off the top four. Will it be a case of one step forward and one step back like it has been all season long for them? Man United have beaten Chelsea (twice), Man City, Tottenham and Leicester City but they have lost against the likes of Bournemouth, Watford and West Ham to bring the back down to earth with a bang each and every time they looked like serious top four contenders once again. Anthony Martial is in fine form with goals in back-to-back games and the January additions of Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo give them fresh options and extra creativity and power in the final third. Fernandes will be key against Watford as they will sit back, get 10 men behind the ball and try to hit the Red Devils on the counter. United need to develop a Plan B against teams who love to sit back against them and the Portuguese playmaker was brought in to help them break down stubborn opponents. United don’t need any help beating the big boys. It’s the strugglers they’ve struggled against this season but this is a chance for them to take two giant steps forward as defensively Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Eric Bailly, Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams look like a settled back five.

In the Mixed Zone with JPW: Episode 1

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NBC Sports’ Pro Soccer Talk lead writer and editor Joe Prince-Wright shares his behind-the-scenes access into the Premier League mixed zones highlighting the intriguing interviews from this week’s marquee matches.

This week, JPW shares his mixed zone interviews from Chelsea-Manchester United, Arsenal-Newcastle and Manchester City-West Ham.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

To listen to more from the mixed zone with Joe Prince-Wright as he takes you deep inside Premier League stadiums, subscribe to In the Mixed Zone with JPW Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

And you can follow him on Twitter @JPW_NBCSports here.

Click here for In the Mixed Zone with archive ]

Click play below to listen to Episode 1 in full.

Pep reacts to Sterling’s Real Madrid comments

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Man City boss Pep Guardiola has responded to comments from his player Raheem Sterling about their upcoming UEFA Champions League opponents Real Madrid.

Sterling, 25, spoke to Spanish outlet AS and confirmed that he is really happy at Man City ‘right now’ but admitted that Real Madrid are a ‘fantastic club’ and waxed lyrical about their famous white shirt.

“Right now I’m at City and I’m really happy. But I say Real Madrid are a fantastic club,” Sterling said. “When you see the white shirt you know exactly what the club stands for, it’s massive. [Rumours of their interest], it’s something that you see all the time, but I’m a City player and I’m enjoying it at the moment, even if things haven’t gone quite planned in the league.

“We now have a massive opportunity in the Champions League. I keep saying Real Madrid is a fantastic club, there’s lovely weather, but I keep saying that I am quite happy at City. I have a contract with City now and I have to respect this. But it’s a fantastic club.”

The photo on the front of AS showed Sterling with a Real Madrid shirt on one shoulder and a Man City shirt on the other.

Guardiola was asked about his response to those comments and if he thought Sterling, or any other players, would be less committed to Man City given their two-year ban from European competitions.

“Players are free to talk and say what they believe and think,” Guardiola said. “We are not hear to tell them what they think. I am sure about the commitment of our players. They have shown it for many years and nothing changes.”

Sterling has returned to training after two weeks out through injury and he could play at Leicester City on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) as Guardiola’s men aim to open up a seven-point gap to third-place Leicester with a win.

Sterling’s comments are complimentary about Real Madrid and given their reported admiration for him for quite some time, the timing of saying this is a little odd given City’s ban from UEFA and so much uncertainty around the future of the club in the Champions League.

Despite Guardiola committing himself to staying at Man City for next season and until the end of his contract in the summer of 2021, his players will get plenty of offers to leave if the Champions League ban is upheld. Lionel Messi has joked that Barcelona should “sign the lot of them!” when asked about Sergio Aguero and others signing for the Spanish giants.

Sterling isn’t the first or last Man City player who will be targeted by European giants over the next few months as the situation remains uncertain.

Chelsea: No exact date for Pulisic return; Kante out

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USMNT superstar Christian Pulisic remains out injured for Chelsea and his manager Frank Lampard has admitted the injury is a ‘difficult one’ to assess.

Slumping Chelsea host in-form Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday at Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Blues in fourth place but just one point ahead of Spurs.

N’Golo Kante, who hobbled off in the 2-0 defeat to Man United on Monday, is out for three weeks but the most concerning news was about Pulisic as Lampard revealed he can’t give an exact date on when the USMNT star will be back after his adductor injury which saw him last play on Jan. 1. 

“N’Golo is not fit. A muscle injury, the same as the one he came off with Arsenal with. Should be, hopefully, three weeks,” Lampard said. “Christian Pulisic is still not fit. At the moment I can’t give an exact date. Difficult injury, we are working with that. Ruben is in the squad but not fit to start. Andreas Christensen is fit. He went to get a mask for a broken nose.”

Tammy Abraham has trained the last two days at about ’70 percent’ while it is not expected that Callum Hudson-Odoi will be fit. The news on Kante is particularly damaging as he will miss the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg against Bayern Munich as injures are piling up all over the pitch.

The good news for Chelsea? Ruben Loftus-Cheek will return to the squad this weekend after being out since May 12 when he injured his Achilles in a friendly against the New England Revolution in a friendly.

That is the only decent bit of injury news for Lampard’s young Chelsea squad.

Chelsea are still in fourth but have won just four of their last 14 games in the Premier League and with Spurs just one point behind them and United three points behind them, the chasing pack are closing in. Tottenham have plenty of injuries with Harry Kane and Heung-min Son out injured but Jose Mourinho knows this is a good time to play against his former club Chelsea.

Injuries to Abraham, Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi are tough as scoring goals has become an issue for the Blues in this poor run of form which stretches back to November.

All season long Chelsea have squandered goalscoring chances and even if the Champions League qualification goes down to fifth place due to Man City’s European ban, they may still miss out. They have been unlucky with injuries this season and missing Kante for a pivotal stretch of the season and the stop-start campaigns for Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi have been frustrating for Lampard.

“Whenever I speak to fans, and this season is a transitional year so we can’t please everybody, but what I’m getting is they’re recognising a team that wants to play,” Lampard said.

Injury news and a lack of goals aside, it is easy to forget this is a very young Chelsea side who have so far exceeded expectations.

A strong finish in the final 12 games of the season, starting with a win against bitter rivals Spurs, is exactly what the doctor ordered for Lampard and Co.