Arsenal broke their winless streak against Chelsea with a well-deserved 1-0 victory at Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The crucial goal was scored just before half-time by ex-Chelsea defender and Arsenal captain William Gallas when he capitalised on an error by Petr Cech to head home Cesc Fabregas’ corner. And although Chelsea went very close to an equaliser through Shaun Wright-Phillips in the 75th minute the home side held on reasonably comfortably and may have even extended their lead when they had the ball in the back of the net on two occasions in the last 10 minutes, only for the linesman’s flag and the referee’s whistle to deny them on both occasions.
The key to Arsenal’s win was the return of midfield trio Alexander Hleb, Mathieu Flamini and Fabregas, who missed the dismal performance away to Middlesbrough a week earlier. The trio joined Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Eboue in a five-man midfield behind Togolese striker Emmanuel Adebayor, while Robin van Persie returned to the bench after a strong performance in the Champions League midweek.
The first-choice back five was again available with Manuel Almunia returning to the side after Jens Lehmann’s brief cameo against Steaua Bucharest while Bacary Sagna, Kolo Toure, William Gallas and Gael Clichy each started in front of him. It was essentially a full-strength side for Arsenal and they put in a performance more than adequate enough to walk away with the three points.
Arsenal went into the game knowing that only a win would see them head back to the top of the table after Manchester United’s win at Liverpool earlier in the day. But they were made to work extremely hard for the win by a Chelsea side missing arguably their two best players in Didier Drogba and Michael Essien through injury and suspension respectively. The game started at a bright pace with Flamini providing the first highlight with an explosive run, but his fifty-yard dash was eventually scuppered by resident boo-boy Ashley Cole. Soon after Arsenal were almost gifted a goal when Alex attempted a back header but only succeeded in lobbing his own goalkeeper. Luckily for Chelsea, the ball bounced just wide.
A couple of good saves by Almunia from Wright-Phillips and Andriy Shevchenko were sandwiched by an awful tackle by John Terry on Fabregas. He received a yellow-card for his troubles, but received even further retribution when Eboue tackled late, forcing the England captain hobbling off the pitch to be replaced by Ben Tal-Haim. It was a stupid tackle by Eboue and one that will not help his growing reputation as a hot-headed player, but I have to say I found the sight of Terry going off so soon after trying to mark Fabregas’ shins quite pleasing. Ironically, Eboue would receive his punishment for the tackle later on in the match after an encounter with Joe Cole saw the Arsenal winger forced off with knee-ligament damage.
Gallas decisive again
The half looked to be ending 0-0 until Gallas struck two minutes into injury-time. Chelsea turned possession over in the centre of the park and the ball fed through to Rosicky, who won a corner for Arsenal despite a lovely tackle by Paulo Ferreira. Fabregas stepped up to swing in the corner, Cech came out and got nowhere near it and Gallas was on hand to out-jump Ben-Haim and head into the empty net. It was such a suprising error by Cech, who rarely makes mistakes of any kind, but as Arsene Wenger alerted to after the match, Gallas was probably the only player who would have gambled on such an error because of his striker’s instinct.
“I’m not sure if I would have jumped behind Cech because I would have thought he takes the ball, you know? And that’s a real striker, they believe if a mistake happens they are there.”
Judging by Ben-Haim’s feeble jump he expected Cech to get to it, so there’s definitely some credit in what Wenger is saying. That’s three times that Gallas has got forward to score crucial goals in crucial games and when you consider that two of them have been against Manchester United and Chelsea he’s really making a difference.
Scoring a goal just before the break must have really stung Chelsea and they came out for the second-half with renewed energy. John Obi Mikel had a shot brilliantly saved by Almunia and then Wright-Phillips preceded to wasted Chelsea’s best chance of the match, volleying wide from very close range from substitute Claudio Pizarro’s cross. In the meantime, the inured Eboue was replaced by van Persie, but the Dutchman immediately wasted a chance to put the game to bed after great midfield pressure by Rosicky and a neat cushioned pass by Hleb.
I’ll just take some time now to talk about how well I thought Tomas Rosicky played. Although he didn’t grab a goal his touch, passing, movement and perhaps most surprisingly, industry were absolutely vital against Chelsea. There’s no question that the Czech midfield has struggled without his midfield buddies but having Flamini, Hleb and Fabregas back in the side lifted Rosicky to arguably his best performance of the season. More of the same please, Tomas.
Things went a little bit crazy during the final ten minutes of the match with Arsenal and Chelsea having a number of chances to get on the scoresheet late on. Adebayor held off two challenges to slip a pass to Rosicky who then laid a great ball through for van Persie to fire home, but play was called back after the Czech midfielder was correctly ruled to be in an offside position from Adebayor’s initial pass. Almunia then saved well from a Shevchenko header before van Persie and Fabregas were denied by a great double-save by Cech.
With the game running from end to end Arsenal then had another goal disallowed, this time scored by Adebayor. The Arsenal striker was ruled to have fouled Ben-Haim in the build-up to the goal but I’ve watched the replay numerous times and still can’t understand what he did wrong; if anything it was the Israeli defender who was clinging on to Adebayor’s shirt. There was a nervous moment very late on for the home side when substitute Gilberto Silva clumsily fouled Joe Cole just outside the Arsenal area. Shevchenko hammered the free-kick straight at Almunia but it was hit with such pace that the Arsenal keeper did well just to tip it over the bar.
From the subsequent corner the home side won possession, raced down the other end almost scored with the last kick of the game only for Fabregas’ shot to be blocked by the traitor Ashley Cole. Fabregas then proceded to scissor-tackle Cole as the Chelsea defender cleared and the ex-Arsenal man retaliated by pushing the Spaniard in the face. With Fabregas and Cole both on the ground the final whistle blew and Arsenal had done enough to win their first game over Chelsea in almost four years.
You can probably already tell from the amount of incidents in this match that it was really great game to watch. Although Chelsea lacked a bit of quality up front they really worked hard to nullify Arsenal’s passing game and on the most part they did so effectively. What really stood out to me was the speed with which Arsenal were able to move the ball through the centre of the pitch with their first-choice midfielders available. Flamini showed again why he has become so important to Arsenal’s title charge, winning tackles and playing with the energy that meant the likes of Lampard never really had time to line up shots from the edge of the area.
Fabregas was a little patchy in the first half but as the game wore on his quality and fitness shone through. On another day he would have had at least one goal and his ability to fashion chances late in games means he will continue to be as dangerous a player as he was before his injury. Hleb was quiet at times but his speed and touch on the ball was crucial and ensured that the aforementioned Rosicky was able to have such a strong game.
Defensively I thought Arsenal were exceptional. Consistency has been the name of the game this season and the performances of Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna continued that trend. Rarely did Chelsea threaten down the wings while both the Arsenal full-backs pushed forward on numerous occasions. Gallas was a monster again at the back and did well to get the only goal while he received great support by Toure. At the start of the season I spoke about how important it was for Gallas and Toure to strike up a very strong partnership and I’m delighted to say that this has really come to fruition. Last but not least was Almunia. Question marks were raised about the Spanish goalkeeper’s ability to deal with big matches after his effort against Manchester United, but Almunia was one of the most important players on the pitch against Chelsea. Great stuff and, as I said about Rosicky, hopefully it will continue.
When it’s all said and done, there weren’t really any negatives to take out of this game. Although it wasn’t a perfect Arsenal performance it was great to see Wenger’s first-choice side on the pitch in period between Eboue and Hleb’s substitutions. It’s scary to think that things will only get better as the newly-returned players continue to recover from their various injuries. I guess the only really negative thing to come out of the weekend was that Liverpool failed to take any points of United and the brilliant result against Chelsea did not extend Arsenal’s lead at the top. Alas, one can’t be too greedy and I’ll settle for a hard-fought win over one of the best sides in the country.
What do you think?
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