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 all season, the other is a £97.5million forward signed to help his team win the title. Both have fallen out of favor and may be playing football at different clubs next season after publicly raising concerns about their use, but Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah – the 22-year-old, who was only 13, outshone thoroughbred heavyweight Romelu Lukaku and breathed new 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 explaining the reasons for rejecting multiple offers to extend his Arsenal contract, which was due to expire at the end of the season, he was given the chance to lead the attack with Alexandre Lacazette, who is still not up had fully recovered from Covid -19. How he used his moment.

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Nketiah capped a good all-around display with two goals – one in each half, equaling his first brace in the Premier League – to become the first Arsenal player to score twice in that game in almost 11 years and the Gunners’ campaign after three revived losses in a row. Compare that to Lukaku, who gave a inflammatory interview in December that prompted Blues boss Thomas Tuchel to drop the Belgium international in a move his individual form has never recovered from.

This was Lukaku’s first league start since February 19, a decision partly marked by his failure in the first game, his triumphant second appearance last August and his debut as a goalscorer which seemed to signal he was taking over English football after two Years by storm would take his craft in Serie A with Inter Milan. He touched the ball just 22 times – fewer than any other outfielder on either side – before being substituted off after an hour to a mixed reception that included some boos from some Chelsea supporters.

Looking off the pace in attack, Lukaku was a reminder of what Chelsea loses in their pressing game when Kai Havertz doesn’t lead the line. Tuchel suggested on Tuesday that Lukaku simply hasn’t been fit enough to start games of late and the evidence from west London on Wednesday underscores the notion he still has work to do in that regard.

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta sought an explanation for Nketiah’s lack of effort this season and welcomed his young forward’s commitment, despite receiving few rewards for his involvement in 2022.

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

“He gave me every right to do anything else and if Eddie stopped playing then it’s my fault. If he didn’t play it’s because I missed something as a manager or didn’t have the guts to play him. Today he showed me again how wrong I was.”

Chelsea’s defense was atrocious at times – Tuchel was later unable to explain the sheer volume of individual errors – but Arsenal have not been a team to capitalize on such moments lately and Nketiah’s interventions were a welcome change. Perhaps Arteta’s switch to a three-man defense surprised Tuchel a little, but it was not for the first time that individual errors cost them dearly.

Andreas Christensen’s miserably mismanaged back pass gave Nketiah – who was sacked by Chelsea aged 14 – an early chance as he raced on goal to slide a low end past Edouard Mendy. Timo Werner’s deflected equalizer left Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale partially unseen as he found his way in, but the parity didn’t last long. Cesar Azpilicueta showed a striker touch to smash a Mason Mount cross into goal to put the sides on par at the break, but Arsenal made the most of the more defensive uncertainty that was not allayed by Thiago Silva’s half-time introduction for Christensen.

First off, Nketiah’s persistence was rewarded as he scored a goal in the 57th minute when Malang Sarr and Silva found themselves in trouble. Then, in the game’s closing moments, Azpilicueta awarded a bizarre stoppage-time penalty when Cedric Soares’ cross landed behind Bukayo Saka, but the Blues captain still held the England international down, leaving referee Jon Moss with an easy decision. Saka put down the penalty – his first since missing for England in the Euro 2020 final – and Azpilicueta was forced to protest with a fan after the full-time whistle in an incident that conveyed the bad feeling around Stamford Bridge after another disappointing night.

The crowd was reduced to 32,249 as a result of UK government sanctions against owner Roman Abramovich restricting ticket sales, but the reduced crowd alone does not explain a third home loss at the Spin for the first time since 1993-94. They also conceded four goals in consecutive league games for the first time since 1989/90.

Tuchel, somewhat annoyed, spread the blame everywhere, including his own groundsmen.

“To say that the course is difficult to play here might sound like an excuse, but it’s a very, very difficult course 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 that ball. But still we made the same mistake against Real Madrid which cost us the next round of the Champions League and it cost us next game. I can’t remember when we scored two goals like that.”

There’s no guarantee Nketiah will continue that form, but he certainly earned the right to keep his place for Manchester United’s visit on Saturday, a game that now offers Arsenal a chance to take the initiative from Tottenham Hotspur in the race to take over the top four. The win would put them fourth over Spurs when Antonio Conte’s side compete in Brentford.

It says everything about the weaknesses 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 season but beat Chelsea and still have more than one chance at the Champions League has soccer. The difference can come from partial or fringe players taking advantage of their opportunity.

Nketiah delivered where Lukaku faltered.

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