The London derby between Chelsea and Arsenal no longer holds the kind of significance at the top of Barclays Premier League table that it once had. Monsieur Wenger’s cheeky digs at Chelsea from time to time and the contention for a Champions League spot are all that is left in still keeping it a simmering affair for the past few seasons. This time, however, you will have to be one really biased fan to disagree with the Arsenal manager. Referee Martin Atkinson had a bad day at office; although his ineptitude came through at both ends of the pitch.
The fixture turned out to be the proverbial ‘Game of two halves’ with Chelsea dominating the first half, and Arsenal coming back to life only in the second half. For Chelsea, possibly the biggest achievement apart from the obvious three very crucial points was to stem the rot of poor results at Stamford Bridge, a run-in that has almost surely taken them out of contention for the Premier League title this year. For Arsenal, the second half performance was confidence-inspiring but they would be wondering why their team needed a good hard kick to liven up.
Team Line Ups:
Chelsea: Cech(GK); Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Cole; Ramires, Lampard; Mata, Oscar, Hazard, Torres
Arsenal: Szczesny(GK); Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Diaby, Coquelin; Walcott, Wilshere, Cazorla; Giroud
The first half began with the referee setting the tone for the mistakes he was going to make in the course of the game. Martin Atkinson waved ‘play-on’ as Oscar was felled by Abou Diaby in the very first minute of the game in the penalty box.
The first real chance of the game came in the 5th minute of play when Theo Walcott drifted inside, received a pass from Cazorla and threaded a perfectly weighted pass in between Cahill and Ivanovich to Giroud who dragged his shot agonizingly wide. The Frenchman probably should have scored. He definitely would have rued his miss when Chelsea took the lead in the very next minute. Coquelin was clearly fouled by Ramires as the former brought the ball forward and although the foul was unintentional, with both going in for the ball, it was a foul nevertheless. Martin Atkinson chose to ignore. The ball fell to Azpilicueta as a result of the tackle and he looped in a ball over the Arsenal defence to Juan Mata, who took a brilliant touch before roofing the ball into Arsenal’s net. Arsene Wenger was furious as Chelsea’s Spanish magician celebrated his 14th goal of the season.
Soon after Cazorla tested Petr Cech with a long range effort and Eden Hazard went on one of those mazy runs through the bemused defense. However it was that man Ramires who put Chelsea on course to their second goal. He robbed Diaby off the ball in midfield and continued his run into the box, where he was found by Mata’s immaculate pass. However as the Brazilian prepared to take his shot, he was felled by an onrushing Szczesny. Although he went down a little too easily, the Arsenal goalkeeper did not help his case with that kind of movement. He was yellow carded and Frank Lampard coolly dispatched the resulting penalty to score his 195th goal for the club, merely 7 behind Bobby Tambling’s all time record. Rafa Benitez was particularly happy, for the goal came in the 16th minute and the routine applause for Robbie Di Matteo did not materialize in the wake of celebrations.
Rest of the first half was more or less a story of an exasperated looking Arsenal trying to cope with Chelsea’s pace and movement. There were times when the space afforded to Chelsea in midfield seemed bigger than the pitch at Camp Nou! Captain Thomas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere could be seen making hand gestures to rouse their team to challenge for the ball. Chelsea on the other hand were more confident on the ball as Hazard and Mata consistently tormented the Arsenal defence. There were some half chances throughout for both the sides. Torres provided some cheer for the Arsenal faithful when he hit a shot abysmally wide, but the first half finished with a general feeling that the Blues were going to have a plain sailing in the second half. They could not have been more wrong.
Arsenal came out on to the pitch early before play resumed, after what certainly would have been a good dressing down. Wenger later said his team only came out after the ringing of the bells. Perhaps he was mentioning the alarm bells?
The North Londoners started the second half on a sharp and bright note, showing more intent both on and off the ball. Mertesacker shot straight at Cech after Wilshere had floated a ball into Chelsea’s box. Walcott could only do the same when Cazorla put him through minutes later while Giroud went close as well. All the verve and composure was gone from Chelsea’s play as they struggled to string a few passes together under sustained pressing from Arsenal. Midweek memories from the home game against Southampton came flooding back to the Chelsea faithful. The Gunners’ fans were gaining voice and they were rewarded for their efforts when Cazorla threaded a brilliant pass through to Walcott and the latter calmly finished past Cech. This time it was Chelsea’s turn to feel aggrieved; Torres had been fouled in the build-up but Atkinson simply waved on.
Arsenal continued to press for an equalizer in front of an increasingly anxious Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were clearly in need of a change, but Benitez waited until 70 minutes when Bertrand came on for Oscar. Alongside, Arshavin came on in place of Diaby for the gunners for the final 15 minutes. Diaby had been playing a little higher up the field than in the first half and his departure helped Chelsea regain a slight foothold in the midfield.
Soon after Torres was subbed for Demba Ba; the latter had been expected to start the game. Ba’s impact on the game was immediate. He almost scored in the 83rd minute when put through by Mata. Chelsea’s new target man drew Szczesny off his line and rounded him off but could not get past the Arsenal captain who made a superb block and kept his team in contention. It was definitely his biggest contribution in the game. The final few minutes were a bit frenzied, as Arsenal pushed for an equalizer leaving gaps at the back. A yellow card for Ashley Cole was greeted by cheers from the away end while Chelsea claimed a handball. Cahill made a brilliantly improvised tackle in the dying minutes or else Walcott would have been through on goal.
Although there were dubious decisions, Chelsea deserved their lead at half time and subsequent victory, if only marginally. Rattled for large parts in the second half they managed to defend stoically as a unit, another word for managing to hang on for their lives. They must work on getting rid of that complacency hitherto unseen in the Chelsea of the last decade. Arsenal must take heart from the improvements they made in the second half and look to implement them over the course of the entire 90 minutes. The bragging rights now lie with the the Blues with a first league double after two years.
Although this fixture was nowhere near close to last year’s madness at the Bridge, it had its fair share of entertainment. And above all, Benitez would have been a relieved man as he walked off a snowy Stamford Bridge.