Arsenal’s top four hopes dented by Xhaka’s error

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Xhaka causes Arsenal to lose to four hopes
Xhaka causes Arsenal to lose to four hopes
Arsenal were denied victory by the woodwork, some heroic Burnley defending and the video assistant referee amid a dramatic late onslaught as Granit Xhaka’s error ultimately cost the Gunners dear.

After Xhaka’s errant pass struck Chris Wood for a bizarre equaliser to cancel out Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s opener, Arsenal piled on relentless pressure in the closing stages.

The Gunners thought they had been awarded a penalty against Erik Pieters but the spot-kick and the defender’s red card for deliberate handball were overturned by VAR after replays showed he had diverted Nicolas Pepe’s shot onto the bar with his shoulder.

That was not the end of the late drama as Ben Mee’s block denied Aubameyang a sure-fire winner in stoppage time before Dani Ceballos crashed an effort against the post with almost the last kick of the game.

Ultimately, however, the blame for the dropped points will be laid at the door of Xhaka, who was sent off in the Gunners’ December defeat by Burnley and had another day to forget against the Clarets.

Receiving an ill-advised short pass facing his own goal from keeper Bernd Leno, he tried to clip a square ball to David Luiz across the penalty area but succeeded only in hitting Wood in the midriff and the ball bounced into an empty net for the softest of levellers.

Buoyed by the unexpected gift, Burnley controlled a scrappy second half before Arsenal’s late siege but Leno first produced a fine save to keep out Erik Pieters’ dipping 30-yard volley, and then used his leg to deny Wood in a one-on-one.

A fifth successive home draw inches 15th-placed Burnley seven points clear of the Premier League bottom three, while Arsenal remain 10th, their hopes of a late push for European qualification hindered by two dropped points.

While VAR reached the correct decision in reversing Andre Marriner’s call to penalise and dismiss Pieters, Arsenal will have felt the technology should earlier have been used in their favour against the same player.

Pieters’ arm appeared to have been outstretched when he handled Nicolas Pepe’s cross midway through the second half but VAR official Kevin Friend saw no reason to bring the incident to Marriner’s attention.

“If the first one is not a penalty honestly someone has to come to the training ground and explain what a handball is. It cannot be any clearer,” said frustrated Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta.

“We hit the bar and the post, they cleared the ball off the line but they defend those situations well – and it is down to us not getting the three points.”

Xhaka was far from Arsenal’s only culprit, even though the scale of his error outweighed the Gunners’ other individual failings.

He has made more errors, eight, leading to goals than any other outfield Premier League player since the start of 2016-17 and few, if any, will have been as glaring as his ill-judged and ill-executed miscue here.

But Arsenal should have been further ahead by that stage, Bukayo Saka guilty of prodding wide when clean through on Nick Pope, while Aubameyang also hooked wide after a mistake by Matthew Lowton.

The Gabon striker had fooled Lowton with a stepover in the build-up to giving Arsenal an early lead, his shot squeezing under the glove of Pope at his near post in front of watching England boss Gareth Southgate.

Arsenal’s most glaring miss, however, came from Pepe who completely missed his kick, unmarked eight yards out, from Kieran Tierney’s second-half cross before Aubameyang and Ceballos were both unlucky in time added on.

It would take some players a month to experience the sort of excitement Pieters managed to cram into half an hour, after coming on as a 63rd-minute replacement for the injured Charlie Taylor.

The handball shouts he survived – one correctly, the other far more up for debate – were drama enough, but in-between the former Netherlands defender unleashed a superb first-time volley that had Leno desperately backpedalling to tip over.

Pieters’ positioning to, legally, divert Pepe’s effort onto the woodwork was typical of a host of last-ditch defensive efforts from Burnley’s back-line as the visitors threw the proverbial kitchen sink at them in the dying moments.

Chief among those was Mee flinging himself in front of Aubameyang’s goal-bound strike when it seemed sure the Arsenal striker would register a fourth double, and ninth goal, in only seven appearances against the Clarets.

While they were left clinging on for a point, Burnley could conceivably have collected all three, had Leno not smartly stuck out a leg to deny Wood after a classy exchange of passes with Matej Vydra.

Instead, given the proceedings of the final few minutes, they were content with another draw to widen the gap to the relegation zone to seven points, although 18th-placed Fulham do have a game in hand.

Burnley manager Sean Dyche said: “We had to work very hard against a decent Arsenal side but the mentality of the players was outstanding.

“It is a third game in a week and the physical side of the game was tremendous. During the end of the game, the mentality to block and make sure we didn’t concede was fantastic.”

On the VAR incident: “I don’t think he [Erik Pieters] has thrown his arm up and I do not believe it was deliberate. The referee had his red card out in a millisecond but that is what VAR is for. I know it needs streamlining but that is what it’s there for.

“People know our history against Arsenal with last-minute goals and handballs but today we got the right use of VAR.”

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta speaking to BBC Match of the Day: “If you don’t score your big chances, if you give a goal to the opponent and you don’t get the referee’s decision when you need to, it is very complicated in the Premier League to win a lot of games.

“The top teams sustain results and level through 10 months in this competition and you have to come here and win the game comfortably in my opinion.

“When you have those moments in the game when you are so dominant you have to go two or three goals up and the game is over.

“We gave them a goal, it can happen in football and I demand that we play the way we do. It can happen when you play long.”