Arsenal vs. Wolves score: Nicolas Pepe inspires Gunners to vital three points in race for Champions League

LONDON — Cast to the fringes of the XI though he may be, Arsenal’s record signing may yet have a say in whether their season ends in the fashion Mikel Arteta hopes. For much of this season, Nicolas Pepe has been the $100 million invisible man, his place on the right flank indisputably the place of Bukayo Saka and further avenues into the side blocked by other bright young things.

And yet on the night that they could not find a way through, Pepe delivered a goal of almighty importance for Arsenal’s top-four bid, earning them a 2-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers that has the feel of a major checkpoint on a path that ends with Champions League football. There is work yet to be done — they sit fifth in the table but have two games in hand to make up a one point gap on Manchester United — but this team looks to be relishing it, no matter how hard it is.

A fortnight ago, the meeting of these two had descended into rancor, Gabriel Martinelli sent off for two fouls 10 seconds apart before Ruben Neves and others of a Wolves persuasion took umbrage to the vigor with which Arsenal celebrated their 1-0 win. On that occasion, center back Gabriel had been the hero of the piece for the visitors, his early header earning the Gunners a lead they defended in impressive fashion even when down to 10 men.

This time, his abiding contribution was rather more inauspicious. Under pressure from Raul Jimenez, Gabriel undercooked his back pass from the left channel, allowing Hwang Hee-Chan to burst onto it. Rounding Aaron Ramsdale, he took a touch to settle himself before rolling into an empty net from a tight angle.

This was the nightmare scenario for Arsenal. Few teams in the Premier League are as adept at defending their own penalty area as Bruno Lage’s. Even when they were drawn upfield to press the ball, they could collapse back into shape at a moment’s notice. The hosts could do everything right — Thomas Partey bruising his way past his opponent, Bukayo Saka darting forward — and still find themselves having to get a shot away with eight players in the box.

The chances came but never quite at the remorseless frequency needed to make Wolves buckle. Gabriel Martinelli turned just over when Alexandre Lacazette cut back for him. As for Lacazette, he had clearly seen the critiques aimed at him after a run of two Premier League goals in his last 15 appearances. He needed to shoot more, supporters said. Maybe they also needed to add the implicit part … when the shot is on.

Instead, an increasingly exasperated Emirates Stadium watched him thump the ball from 25 yards out on his weaker foot or try an impossible overhead kick while taking four touches in the penalty area when one would do. It took him 70 minutes to take the right shot at the right moment, but Jose Sa was ready for his near post clip.

Lacazette’s performance was not the only thing driving north London to distraction. Not for the first time in recent weeks, VAR was not on their side when Nelson Semedo and Martinelli collided inside in the Wolves’ box after 20 seconds. Another for Arteta to take up with referee body PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Board). He might also point to how swiftly Craig Pawson sanctioned his players for timewasting at Molineux. Jose Sa was eating clock like Bruce Bogtrotter devours a chocolate cake.

If anyone looked like crafting a way through Wolves backline, it was Odegaard, who is delving ever deeper into his box of tricks and flicks. Martinelli had nearly lifted one lofted through ball over Sa in the first half. The second time was the charm, finding substitute Eddie Nketiah down the right byline. The cut back asked a lot of Pepe but Arsenal’s record signing delivered, twisting around to find space to drive home.

Still, Odegaard probed, a sand wedge of a shot clipping the far upright with Sa stranded. The momentum was relentless and the Emirates Stadium felt it. Pepe was drawing out defenders who were able to sit back earlier in the match. When Saka’s shot was pushed to safety by Sa, it was the Ivorian who picked up the pieces. The ball went from him to Odegaard, on to Lacazette and back to Pepe, whose through ball was slipped right where Romain Saiss had been dragged out from.

This time, Lacazette delivered, cracking a shot toward the far corner. Sa might have done more than help it into the net. Few in this ground could care less. If Neves had been unhappy with the celebrations a fortnight ago, he would be incandescent with the sheer exuberance of 55,000 or so supporters. Few else could blame them though. They feel that the top four is in sight. They might just be right.

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