Tuesday, November 8, 2011

...Wasn't Expecting That

Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal

Many would have feared for Arsenal in the lead-up to this clash. Chelsea had just suffered a noble defeat to QPR, dominating the game and unlucky to lose despite playing with nine men for more than half the contest.

Arsenal had been labouring to victory in matches they were once expected to win comfortably. But progress is progress, and results had improved hugely since the dark days of Old Trafford and Ewood Park.

The worry for many, and certainly me, was that another capitulation against Chelsea would send Arsenal back into crisis mode.

In fairness, some of the worries about Arsenal were well-founded. Their defending for much of the first half was shambolic. But the mental weakness that so often accompanies and exacerbates the defensive vulnerability was not as evident as in the past. And to add a further excitement to what became a surreal game, Chelsea provided their own moments of uncertainty at the back, and contrived to outdo the Gunners in the self-destruction stakes.

Twice Arsenal fell behind to fairly soft goals- and twice they roared back.

The game started in a raging whirlwind of goalmouth action. A minute had not passed before Ashley Cole exposed the downward-spiralling Djourou, offering a poor impression of a right back, and only a timely intervention from Koscielny prevented Torres from latching onto the low cross.

Santos on the other wing was faring no better, and Arsenal's suicidally high line was next broken down his flank, but this time Sturridge dithered too long over an obvious pass across to Torres, and when it came the low ball was too close to Szczesny.

Arsenal responded with menace, and Theo Walcott twice showed uncharacteristic productivity, only for others to waste his good work. First, he was released down the right after excellent breakaway play by Arteta and Ramsey. Cole was left for dead on the touchline, and the low cross was perfectly measured for the onrushing Gervinho, but with Cech making a desperate lunge to save the ball, the Ivorian was put off and screwed an awkward effort wide.

Similar poor finishing by Gervinho had been punished by Tottenham during Arsenal's last defeat and one would have been forgiven for thinking that would be the case again as, after Van Persie skied another chance from another excellent Walcott cross, Chelsea hit the front.

Terry hit an accurate, raking crossfield pass that left Mata facing up to Santos, and the Spaniard easily cut inside the Brazilian before whipping in a vicious cross. With Mertesacker looking flat-footed and unable to head clear, Lampard ghosted in in trademark fashion and placed an emphatic header past Szczesny.

Sturridge had a chance to give Chelsea a two goal cushion. Lampard lofted a first time pass over Arsenal's backline but Sturridge screwed the bouncing ball well wide of the goal, and Arsenalk were still in the game.

The first equaliser was the result of Ramsey's creativity and Gervinho's unselfishness. The Welshman threaded a Cescesque ball through Chelsea's static rearguard and Gervinho squared cleverly to Van Persie as Cech came out. The finish was a formality. Gervinho's pass was simple, and clearly the efficient option, but it remains the kind of pass that professional footballers often fail to spot in the heat of the moment.

Chelsea responded well to the setback. Sturridge soon had the ball in the net, but from an offside position, and as the interval approached, Terry bundled in Lampard's corner after as Arsenal defended with their typical lack of authority- Mertesacker culpable again.

2-1 down at half time, but Arsenal had surely noticed that Chelsea were far from watertight at the back, and set about testing the Blues again straight from kick off. Ramsey hooked a half chance over the bar after Gervinho had roasted Bosingwa. Then Song turned skilfully in midfield and hit a peach of a left footed pass to release Santos, who had left Sturridge trailing. The defender, enduring a torrid afternoon to that point, bore down on Cech and slipped a shot under his right leg for 2-2.

The staggering openness of the match continued. For the third time, a Lampard pass opened up Arsenal with worrying simplicity, and Cole reached the ball first only to be upended by a desperate Szczesny. The keeper had the look of a man who expected a red card, as did most of the viewing public, but he got away with a yellow; a vital moment.

Arsenal took the lead for the first time. Walcott ran at the Chelsea defence with Cole busy complaining about a soft free kick award. The winger tripped himself up, then jumped to his feet as the home defenders hesitated, and after a nice trick and aburst of acceleration, he was through on goal. He blasted his shot inside Cech's near post and a surreal game had a rather surreal goal.

There was more to come. Although Arsenal defended deeper and with more authority for much of the second period, they were undone with ten minutes to go by some more slack play from Santos, some poor refereeing, and some bad luck. The Brazilian presented the ball to Mereiles with a poor pass but looked set to seize on the latter's heavy touch before he was blocked off by Lukaku. No whistle sounded, and the ball was moved inside to Mata. His shot took a hefty deflection off the sliding Song and looped wickedly into the top corner of Szczesny's goal. In recent years, Arsenal have so rarely come out on top in a high-scoring game, and it seemed that hoodoo was to continue.

Instead, it was Chelsea who imploded in the closing stages. Malouda panicked Terry with an overhit backwards pass that had Van Persie interested. The two seemed set for a foot race until the troubled England captain slipped (or, as some have mischievously suggested, took a deliberate fall). Van Persie had a clear run on goal. He calmly rounded Cech and slotted home and Arsenal were in front again.

4-4 is a familiar result for Arsenal of late and there were some predictable moments of panic at the back before a stoppage time counter attack saw Arteta release Van Persie again. The Dutchman took a touch and then leathered a swerving shot past Cech and inside the near post. Arsenal celebrated wildly after this goal and after the full time whistle.

Can the revival continue? Suddenly a top four finish looks possible again.

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