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Arsenal overtake Leicester as Premier League’s most likely to gatecrash the top four

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LONDON — Leicester City not only lost Sunday’s meeting with Arsenal 2-0, they also passed the baton to their hosts as the team most likely to gatecrash the Premier League‘s top four.

Brendan Rodgers’ side were knocking on the door of Champions League football in the past two seasons, capitulating at the end of both campaigns in a manner that will serve as a warning from history to Arsenal for the run-in that lies ahead. The Foxes have not been able to match those heights this term — never finishing a matchweek any higher than eighth — but while Leicester have fallen away, the identity of the side most likely to take their place has not been particularly clear until now.

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Arsenal have quietly but consistently established themselves as the Champions League team-in-waiting, securing five wins in a row and turning their games in hand into welcome opportunities to strengthen their position rather than must-win, high-pressure encounters to make up ground. There is understandable reticence in this part of north London to look too far ahead given a quarter of the season remains — and some tough fixtures lying in wait — but Arsenal responded to wins elsewhere for Manchester United and West Ham United this weekend with a deserved victory of their own to move back into fourth place once more.

The Gunners now sit one point above United and three clear of West Ham despite having played three games fewer, a position Arteta is aware of but continues to play down.

“I look at the table with the games that we have remaining, I know where we are but we have to look forward,” he said after the match. “We have to look at what we do, focus on our performances and prepare for the next match and that’s it. The rest is just … we are going to be guessing. I am not a great gambler, I have never been and I don’t want to gamble now.”

Arsenal also still have to play United at Emirates Stadium, a place where many games in recent years have resembled a referendum on the future direction of the club: some protesting, some supporting but all frustrated at the distance between where they are and where they once were. The atmosphere is markedly different now, fans responding in unison to a young team playing for each other and exhibiting a resolve so often lacking in recent times.

Thomas Partey opened the scoring after 11 minutes with a simple header from Gabriel Martinelli’s corner — yet another set-piece failure for Leicester — and the goal seemed to give him the confidence to dictate plenty of the midfield exchanges thereafter. It was Martin Odegaard, though, who shone the brightest once again here, creating five chances in the first half alone — more than any other Arsenal player in the first half of a Premier League game since Mesut Ozil against Everton in October 2017.

There is more than a passing resemblance between Odegaard and Ozil; specifically the Ozil who Arsenal fans purred over on his best days, not the one who later became an outcast, sapping both money and positivity from a club engaging in introspective existential angst. Odegaard has the same ability to find space in the final third, so often picking the right pass with the optimum weight attached to it.

The 23-year-old has spoken this month of his contentment at finally being settled after a nomadic career to date, being given “peace and stability to establish myself somewhere, and not stress about where the next loan should be.” He is seemingly thriving in the environment Arteta has created.

“He was terrific again today, in every aspect of the game,” Arteta said of the Norway captain. “What he had to do in defending, when we were in high, when we were deep, in build-up phase in the final third, the way he understands and manages the game when he was needed I think is coming a long way since his arrival. He is showing great maturity and responsibility on the pitch and he makes the other players better I think.”

Aaron Ramsdale made one of the saves of the season in October’s reverse fixture, and while his first-half intervention to deny Harvey Barnes was not in that category, Rodgers was caught by a pitchside television camera mouthing the word “wow” as his celebration was cut short by the England goalkeeper’s right-handed reflex stop.

Leicester were aggrieved at the penalty decision for Arsenal’s second goal, coming on a VAR review for a Caglar Soyuncu handball in a penalty-box melee, but regardless of the method, the Gunners were good value for their win.

It is not just Leicester’s recent experience that should serve as a warning for Arsenal. There are difficult challenges ahead, not least in their remaining fixtures with Liverpool next up on Wednesday, games against United and West Ham at the end of April plus trips to Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea to be rearranged.

The experience of 2018-19 will linger in the memory, too, winning just one of their final five league games to stumble out of the top four under Unai Emery. The wait for a first Champions League campaign has felt much longer than five years in these parts given the 19 consecutive seasons in Europe’s premier club competition that preceded it.

Nothing is decided yet, but beating Leicester in the manner they did underlined that Arsenal are in pole position from here.



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