With Romelu Lukaku and Álvaro Morata blazing attacking trails since their spotlight Premier League moves, Alexandre Lacazette perhaps would have felt the burn of expectation when he stood over the ball contemplating how he should strike a penalty that seemed like it would be decisive.
With Arsenal leading 1-0 against a dogged and aggrieved West Bromwich Albion, who wondered how they had not had a penalty of their own earlier in the game, all eyes were on Arsenal’s new French forward.
Lacazette stood behind the spot wearing the expression of a man contemplating what colour socks to wear that day. If he felt any pressure he certainly did not show it, and duly slammed the ball low and fiercely into the goalkeeper’s bottom-left corner. A pair of predatory goals to win a tense match does Lacazette the world of good as he continues to work his way into Premier League life.
As pivotal moments went it was, importantly, one of a handful that marked this encounter. Tony Pulis chose the I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-referees stance. Having said that, the Albion manager could not quite stop himself from a few plaintive yet pointed laments. Some frustration was understandable given an incident in the seventh minute when Jay Rodriguez scampered down the left, chased in unconvincing fashion by Shkodran Mustafi, who was lulled into a desperate challenge in the penalty area.
Mustafi’s luck that the referee Bobby Madley did not award a penalty was enhanced when West Bromwich could not take advantage as they played on. Rodriguez regained his footing and shot crisply. Petr Cech’s reflex save deflected the ball on to a post and Jake Livermore was frustrated as he screwed the rebound wide. “We believe it’s a penalty and if the lad’s the last man he should be sent off,” said Pulis. “People say Rodriguez has been too honest. Is honesty the thing to do?”
The Albion manager paused, leaving this existential question hanging in the air. “We haven’t had a penalty for over a year now. The facts are the facts.” After all that he made it clear he did not advocate that Rodriguez should have stayed down. It’s a moral maze all right.
For once Pulis and Arsène Wenger had some agreement as the Arsenal manager admitted it was a lucky break for his team. Had it been given, Wenger said, he “would not have said it was a scandal”.
The player himself admitted it never occurred to him to exaggerate and his eyes were focused only on trying to score. “I wouldn’t be rolling around trying to get free kicks,” Rodriguez said. “If I have the chance to score and see it, I am not going to stay down and shy away from it. It was just one of those things.”
Another remarkable, if less controversial, one of those things occurred when Nacho Monreal denied Rodriguez with the goal at his mercy shortly before half-time. His downward header beat Cech but at that precise moment Monreal unveiled a stunning impression of Bruce Lee, deflecting the ball with a mid-air kung-fu kick.
Fine margins. Arsenal’s two goals, one in each half, tilted the result to conclude a contest Wenger described as a comfortable finish after a nervy first half. Lacazette plundered the first after Alexis Sánchez executed a fine free-kick with zip and dip. Ben Foster in the Albion goal did well to help it on to the crossbar but Lacazette lurked with intent and nodded in the opening goal.
Then came the only one of three potential penalties that was given by Madley. He waved one away when Sánchez’s shirt was pulled, then pointed to the spot after Allan Nyom barged over Aaron Ramsey. Lacazette impressed Wenger when Arsenal practised penalties in training so he has been given the duty. He responded with aplomb. He has scored 21 in just over three seasons – only Cristiano Ronaldo, with 22, has more from Europe’s top five leagues.
Wenger was pleased to see the striker provide another positive performance. “He is not only a goalscorer, his link-up play is good, he fights as well, he is not phased by the physical challenges West Brom gave us. He looks to adapt very quickly and very well,” the manager added. There still looks like more to come from Lacazette in terms of combination play with Sánchez. Olivier Giroud was again in reserve and played seven minutes.
Some rotation is expected as Arsenal head off to Belarus in the Europa League. “At moment I would say the schedule for us is a bit cruel,” said Wenger. “We play tonight, in Bate Borisov on Thursday night, then Sunday morning at 12 o’clock here. I will go with a team of senior players and certainly a young bench.”
This game marked Gareth Barry’s record-breaking 633rd Premier League appearance, exceeding the total set by Ryan Giggs. Perhaps fittingly it felt like standard fare for this competition, hotly competed, tense and tight in mood. The Albion man was presented with a memento by Wenger after the game signed by all the Arsenal players on the night. A classy touch on an evening when West Bromwich felt few gifts went their way.
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