It was the kind of prediction you could not help suspecting might come back to haunt Ashley Cole. Assessing Arsenal’s chances of keeping Jamie Vardy quiet with a backline consisting of David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi and Sead Kolasinac, the former England defender seemed confident enough.
“They’re well equipped to deal with Vardy,” Cole told Sky before the match. “He won’t cause them any trouble.” But on a night when Leicester desperately needed their leading man to write another chapter in his remarkable story, the Premier League’s leading goalscorer was always destined to have the last laugh.
It has been four years since the striker who was playing for Halifax Town in the Northern Premier League as recently as 2011 decided to turn down the opportunity to join Arsenal in the aftermath of Leicester’s fairytale title. Having gone as far as visiting the club’s London Colney training ground and meeting Arsène Wenger after the Frenchman had triggered his release clause, Vardy famously had a late change of heart and stayed put.
Given the relative fortunes of both clubs since, he has no reason to regret that decision. While Arsenal have failed to reach the Champions League since the 2016-17 season when his goals guided Leicester to the quarter-finals of the competition, the 33-year-old has continued to flourish and had taken his Premier League tally to an impressive 101 in 205 appearances after the double against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
“I would like to see where Leicester were today without Vardy in the last three years,” Mikel Arteta said before their encounter at the Emirates Stadium.
Having missed out on the Golden Boot to Harry Kane in 2016, the showdown with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was the perfect opportunity for Vardy to consolidate his two-goal lead over his closest challenger this season. Yet, as Cole also pointed out before kick-off, the absence of the injured James Maddison meant Leicester have lacked creativity of late and their talisman was restricted to one shot from outside the box in the first half that was easily saved by Emiliano Martínez. Arteta felt Vardy was lucky to escape a red card after his left foot caught Mustafi in the eye during one coming together and it was a decision that would prove crucial.
Instead, it was left to Aubameyang to score his 52nd Premier League goal in 80 appearances after a superb assist from the rising star Bukayo Saka – a phenomenal record that even Vardy cannot match. Aubameyang’s future in north London has yet to be confirmed, as contract talks continue behind the scenes, although official pictures released by Arsenal this week of him modelling next season’s training kit sent speculation that he could be staying into overdrive.
Wary of committing to another expensive contract in the region of Mesut Özil’s £350,000-a-week deal, Arteta must decide whether to cash in on a player who has spent much of the season playing out of position on the left flank but is still in the running to win the award he shared with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané last season. You can imagine another season in the Europa League will not hold much appeal for Aubameyang, either.
Operating in support of Alexandre Lacazatte, the 31-year-old showed once more that his game is not only about scoring as Arsenal attempted to defend their lead in the second half, even providing willing assistance to Kieran Tierney when called upon. But while Arteta would undoubtedly acknowledge his importance to his young side, Vardy’s late equaliser and 22nd league goal of the season was yet another illustration of how much Leicester’s chances of reaching the Champions League rest on his shoulders.
After Vardy provided two perfect crosses for Kelechi Iheanacho that were the closest they had come to breaking the deadlock, his golden opportunity to score at the home of the club he rejected seemed to have finally arrived in the 66th minute, only for Vardy to barely make contact with the ball with his left foot.
It seemed that it would be Aubameyang’s night until the red card for Eddie Nketiah allowed Leicester to mount a late siege on Martínez’s goal. When his moment duly arrived, there was no way Vardy would miss again. “It was all about being patient,” he said afterwards. Bournemouth’s leaky defence must be quaking in their boots before Leicester’s visit to the south coast on Sunday.