LONDON: On a night of spectacular goals in the Premier League, it was a pair of tackles that had the most significant impact on the hard-fought race for Champions League qualification.
Chelsea’s 3-2 win at Crystal Palace was only secured thanks to a remarkable last-ditch challenge by centre-back Kurt Zouma, who somehow made up ground to divert the ball away as Christian Benteke was about to shoot late in stoppage time.
Then, hours later at a rain-soaked Emirates Stadium, Arsenal were leading 1-0 against Leicester City and on course for a win that would have thrown open the fight for a finish in the top four when substitute striker Eddie Nketiah was handed a straight red card in the 75th minute for a studs-first lunge on James Justin.
Jamie Vardy equalised nine minutes later with a goal that took a while to be confirmed by the video assistant referee to seal a 1-1 draw, dealing a huge setback to Arsenal’s improbable hopes of climbing into the top five.
The two results left Chelsea in third place and a point clear of Leicester, who finally dropped to fourth after a poor run of results in the league since late January. Manchester United are four points back in fifth place, which will secure qualification for the Champions League if second-placed Manchester City fail to overturn their two-year European ban.
Arsenal stayed seventh, five points behind United with only four games remaining. United’s game in hand is against Aston Villa on Thursday.
Chelsea were fortunate when opening the scoring at Selhurst Park as former Chelsea captain Gary Cahill fell to the ground clutching his hamstring to allow Willian to tee up Olivier Giroud for his fourth goal in six games.
Christian Pulisic’s form since the Premier League’s restart has led to comparisons with Eden Hazard, the man he replaced at Stamford Bridge, and the Belgian would have been proud of Chelsea’s second as the 21-year-old American skipped past Joel Ward and hammered in off the inside of the near post.
As so often this season, Frank Lampard’s men failed to capitalise on their dominance and were suddenly on the back foot when Wilfried Zaha thundered a shot high past Kepa Arrizabalaga from long range for Palace’s first goal in four games.
Chelsea looked to have sealed the three points again when substitutes Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham combined for the latter to restore a two-goal cushion 19 minutes from time only for Benteke to set up what proved to be a frantic finale by scoring a home goal for the first time since April 2018.
Leicester have now won just one of their six games since the restart to see their lead over the chasing pack for a place in the top four whittled away, but were grateful for a draw after a slow start against in-form Arsenal.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang swept home the opener for the Gunners as Kasper Schmeichel kept Leicester in the game with a stunning save to deny Alexandre Lacazette.
Lacazette also saw a goal disallowed for offside after the break before the game turned when Nketiah was shown a straight red.
Leicester made the man advantage count as Vardy pounced to slot home Demarai Gray’s cross and regain his two-goal advantage over Aubameyang in the race for the Golden Boot.
Last-placed Norwich City could be relegated as early as Saturday after squandering an early lead to lose 2-1 at Watford and slip 10 points adrift of safety with only four matches remaining.
For Watford, it was a huge win its first since the restart that moved the fourth-from-last team four points clear of the relegation zone.
Danny Welbeck scored the winning goal with an overhead kick from near the penalty spot in the 55th minute. Watford battled back from conceding a fourth-minute goal to Emiliano Buendia, with Craig Dawson scoring the equaliser from a corner in the 10th.
Norwichs relegation will be sealed if they lose at home to West Ham United on Saturday.
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2020