MIKEL ARTETA has always known that Eddie Nketiah could be something special.
But it has taken the young Londoner a long time to justify his manager’s faith. And maybe now it is too late for him to become a future Arsenal star.
One of Arteta’s first acts on being appointed Gunners boss in December 2019 was to recall Nketiah from an underwhelming loan spell at Leeds.
The England Under-21 international hadn’t been getting the games at Elland Road that Arsenal expected and Arteta decided he would be better served returning to the Emirates to continue his development.
But it is only now that Nketiah is getting a regular run in the starting line-up. And with his contract due to expire at the end of next month, there’s a fair chance that he will be leaving as a free agent.
It was Nketiah’s two-goal contribution to the 4-2 win at Chelsea which sparked the recent Arsenal revival which has left them within touching distance of a top four finish.
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But he wants to be sure he is going to get regular Premier League football next season and isn’t prepared to hang around on the subs bench any more.
So Arteta will do everything in his power to convince the 22-year-old striker to sign a new deal after this latest double pushed Arsenal to the brink of the Champions League and his former club closer towards the Championship.
For Leeds are dropping like a stone under new boss Jesse Marsch and now find themselves back in the relegation zone for the first time since September.
And the way they lost the plot as Arsenal took another massive stride towards securing their ambitions finish does not bode well for Marsch’s long-term prospects.
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He was not helped by Luke Ayling’s 27th-minute dismissal for a terrible two-footed foul on Gabriel Martinelli which means he will now be banned for the remainder of the season.
Ref Chris Kavanagh initially waved a yellow card at the former Arsenal apprentice making the 500th appearance of his career.
But it was a straight red all day long and Kavanagh changed his mind as soon as he reviewed the challenge on the pitchside monitor.
Not that Ayling’s premature departure could be blamed for this damaging defeat, because Leeds were already two goals down by then and holed beneath the waterline.
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They set the tone for this error-strewn display with just five minutes gone when dodgy keeper Illan Meslier was tackled by Nketiah on his own line after taking a heavy touch to control Ayling’s back pass.
Nketiah pointedly refused to celebrate that goal out of respect for his former colleagues yet could not control his emotions when he struck again five minutes later.
This time it was Ayling who was taken to the cleaners by Martinelli’s surging run down the left before the young Brazilian pulled the ball back for Nketiah to slot home with a first-time shot.
And left to face a rampant Arsenal with ten men for the final 65 minutes, it was all the visitors could do to keep the scoreline respectable.
No Premier League team has conceded more goals than Leeds this season and they could have fallen further behind when the unconvincing Meslier completely misjudged the flight of a Martin Odegaard free-kick.
Fortunately for the young Frenchman, Diego Llorente was able to come to his rescue on this occasion with an acrobatic goal-line clearance.
It was a toss-up as to whether Meslier was having a worse afternoon than full-back Junior Firpo, who was all over the place as he tried in vain to shut out the rampant Bukayo Saka.
There were times when Marsch actually looked like he was praying as he looked on from his technical area.
But even divine intervention is not going to be enough to save this lot unless they buck their ideas up pretty damned quickly.
Wednesday’s home game against Chelsea is now going to be pivotal to their survival hopes but at least they can still rely on the supporters who did not stop singing from first whistle to last.
And they were finally given something to get excited about when Lorente volleyed in unchallenged at the back post after Jack Harrison’s 66th minute corner had been flicked on by Firpo.
It means Arsenal have now failed to keep a clean sheet in their last seven games and they cannot afford to be so careless in Thursday’s crucial North London derby.
For this result means Arteta’s men are now four points clear of fifth-placed Spurs with just three games remaining.
So victory at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium would be enough to guarantee a top four finish and a return to the Champions League for the first time since 2016.
Arteta is terrified at the prospect of needing to win the final game of the season at home to Everton and sending his former club down.
And while he can’t promise any favours for his old mates, at least he can take comfort from the the knowledge that he has given them a helping hand by shoving Leeds deeper into the brown stuff.