Soccer  

Nketiah proves Arteta wrong, gives Arsenal new life in top-four race as Lukaku conjures no such revival

LONDON — One is an academy graduate without a Premier League goal to his name all season, the other is a £97.5million striker signed to win his team the title. Both are out of favour and may well be playing their football at different clubs next season after publicly voicing concerns about how they are being utilised, yet Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah — the 22-year-old making only his 13th top-flight start — outshone pedigree heavyweight Romelu Lukaku to breathe fresh life into the Gunners’ top-four hopes with a brace in Wednesday’s 4-2 win at Chelsea.

A day after Nketiah gave an interview in which he explained the reasons behind turning down multiple offers to extend his Arsenal contract that expires at the end of the season, he was given a chance to lead the attack with Alexandre Lacazette still not fully recovered from Covid-19. How he seized his moment.

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Nketiah capped a fine all-round display with two goals — one in each half amounting to his first Premier League brace — to become the first Arsenal player to score twice in this fixture for almost 11 years and reinvigorate the Gunners’ campaign after three consecutive defeats. Contrast that with Lukaku, who gave a more incendiary interview in December that prompted Blues boss Thomas Tuchel to drop the Belgium international in a move from which his individual form has never recovered.

This was Lukaku’s first league start since Feb. 19, a decision partly informed by his outing in the first fixture, his triumphant second coming last August, a goal-scoring debut that appeared to signal he would take English football by storm after two years honing his craft in Serie A with Inter Milan. He touched the ball just 22 times — fewer than any other outfield player on either team — before being substituted on the hour mark to a mixed reception that contained a few boos from some Chelsea supporters.

Lukaku looked off the pace in attack and provided a reminder of what Chelsea lose in their pressing game when Kai Havertz is not leading the line. Tuchel suggested on Tuesday that Lukaku simply wasn’t fit enough to start matches of late and the evidence from west London on Wednesday underlines the notion that he has plenty of work still to do in that regard.

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta looked inward for an explanation for Nketiah’s lack of usage this season, and applauded his young forward’s commitment despite receiving few rewards for his dedication in 2022.

“Good things happen to good people,” Arteta said. “If there’s one player I’ve been unfair with, then it’s him.

“He’s given me every right to do something different, and if Eddie hasn’t played more, then it’s my fault. If he hasn’t played then it’s because me, as a manager, I’ve missed something or I haven’t had the courage to play him. Today he showed me again how wrong I was.”

Chelsea’s defending was atrocious at times — Tuchel was at a loss to explain the sheer volume of individual mistakes afterwards — but Arsenal have not been a team to capitalise on such moments of late, and so Nketiah’s interventions made a welcome change. Perhaps Arteta’s shift to a three-man defence surprised Tuchel somewhat but, not for the first time, it was individual errors that cost them dearly.

Andreas Christensen’s woefully under-hit back-pass gave Nketiah — who was released by Chelsea at the age of 14 — an early chance, racing through on goal to slot a low finish past Edouard Mendy. Timo Werner’s deflected equaliser left Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale partially unsighted as it found its way in, but parity did not last long, a fine Arsenal move culminating in Emile Smith Rowe stroking home a fine finish from the edge of the box. Cesar Azpilicueta showed a striker’s touch to poke home Mason Mount’s cross to send the teams in level at the break, but Arsenal made the most of more defensive uncertainty, not eradicated by Thiago Silva’s half-time introduction for Christensen.

First, Nketiah’s perseverance was rewarded as he scored on 57 minutes as Malang Sarr and Silva got in a muddle. Then, in the game’s closing moments, Azpilicueta gave away a bizarre stoppage-time penalty as Cedric Soares’ cross went behind Bukayo Saka but the Blues captain still held the England international down, leaving referee Jon Moss with a simple decision. Saka dispatched the spot kick — his first since missing for England in the final of Euro 2020 — and Azpilicueta was left to remonstrate with a fan after the full-time whistle in an incident conveying the ill-feeling around Stamford Bridge after another disappointing night.

The crowd was reduced to 32,249 as a result of the U.K. government sanctions against owner Roman Abramovich restricting ticket sales, but the diminished audience alone is no explanation of a third home defeat on the spin for the first time since 1993-94. They also conceded four goals in back-to-back league games for the first time since 1989-90.

Tuchel, somewhat exasperated, apportioned blame in all directions, including his own groundsmen.

“To say the pitch is difficult to play here, it maybe sounds like an excuse, but it is a very, very difficult pitch that we have here,” he said. “It’s not in our favour. The ball bounces very awkwardly in front of Andreas when he wants to play this ball. But still, we had the same mistake against Real Madrid that cost us the next round of the Champions League, and this one cost us the next match. I can’t remember when we got two goals like this.”

There is no guarantee that Nketiah will continue this form, but he has surely earned the right to retain his place for Saturday’s visit of Manchester United, a game that now offers Arsenal the chance to seize the initiative from Tottenham Hotspur in the top-four race. Victory would send them above Spurs into fourth by the time Antonio Conte’s side kick off at Brentford.

It says everything about the vulnerabilities of every team below Liverpool and Manchester City that Arsenal can lose to Crystal Palace, Brighton & Hove Albion and Southampton at this relatively late stage of the campaign yet beat Chelsea and still have more than a puncher’s chance of Champions League football. The difference may come from bit-part or fringe players seizing their opportunity.

Nketiah delivered where Lukaku faltered.