Arsenal 3 Chelsea 1
After an unlegislated winter break of two weeks without a fixture, there was plenty of build up to the Chelsea match. A pleasant family Christmas incorporating my sister`s 30th birthday bookended my own pre match build up. There appeared to be a great deal of gnashing of teeth and trepidation from Arsenal fans, causing expectations to plummet. My own expectations were high, I was super confident on this occasion. It sounds like a facile thing to say, but people tend to over react to a scoreline, the game at Stamford Bridge was a sea change I felt, an impartial look at the game showed we were unlucky to lose. The problem is people refuse to take Arsenal matches in isolation nowadays, overly weened on the one on one records Sky force feeds us to fill its bloated 24 hour coverage. Our record versus United and Chelsea since November 2008 (why begin there? Why not go back to November 2005 or some other random point? It`s designed to manipulate the statistic) has been poured over ad nauseam. Truth is, the first 40 minutes last night we barely any different from the first half an hour at Stamford Bridge, or the first half an hour at home to Chelsea last season. The first goal makes the difference.
With a couple of pre match Guinnesses settling the stomach, I arrived at the ground to find a brave team selection from the manager. Van Persie, Walcott and Djourou all came in, Chamakh, Arshavin and Squillaci all out. Despite having reservations about the inclusion of Theo from the start, I was more buoyed than ever. The manager had clearly picked a team set up with Chelsea in mind. That said, Chelsea`s set up was little surprise. Nine men behind the ball with Drogba and Malouda looking to counter with Cech`s long kicks, it`s a tactic that has borne fruit for the visitors in the past. Arsenal bossed possession in the first half and Chelsea were happy to let them. Song clipped a searching ball in behind Ivanovic, but van Persie miscued his volley. Chelsea rarely threatened but then they never really have to against us in recent years. Koscielny`s midfield pass ricocheted to Drogba in space and he made a beeline for the edge of the area, but Djourou stayed composed and shepherded him into an unattractive shot which dragged well wide. The home side kept on pressing and were nearly rewarded when Terry`s clearing header went as far as Sagna on the edge of the area, he shuffled the ball to Nasri who chipped the ball towards the top corner, but Cech was well positioned to tip the ball over.
But on the stroke of half time, the Gunners got the goal they needed to make Chelsea change tack. Wilshere prodded the ball into a crowded area to Fabregas, Ferreira tripped him quite blatantly. Clattenburg did not play an advantage contrary to what has been reported, he had no intention of awarding a penalty which reflects very poorly on him. Fabregas remonstrated with the referee as the players went off at half time to ask if he would have had the penalty had Song not scored and Clattenburg indicated he would not have done. Scandalous. Anyways, it`s academic because the ball rolled to Alex Song who tucked a low finish past Cech with his left foot. Just what the doctor ordered, though I`m sure somewhere in the crowd some Arsenal fans were chastising Song for not staying rooted to the same ten yard patch of grass in his own half for 90 minutes. Chelsea could not continue their stifling game for much longer and having not won in over a month, one could see their confidence visibly drain. Half time saw (or rather heard) a 30th birthday dedication to my sister, who was at the match with me, my present to her, as well as the programme dedication. When did one of your siblings last give you a present as good as a 3-1 home win over Chelsea? Top brother material that.
The concern now was that Arsenal would become paralysed by fear and try too hard to sit deep. Those fears were dispelled within about three seconds of the second half starting when Fabregas immediately dispossessed Lampard straight from the kick off. Good captains set the tone and lead by example, last night we saw why Cesc is the best captain we`ve had since Adams retired. Six minutes into the second half, the Gunners had moved into a two goal lead. Van Persie fought manfully for the ball in central midfield, the ball ricocheted off of Essien and fell to an alive Theo Walcott, who had ghosted in behind a cumbersome Ashley Cole, Walcott squared for Cesc to sweep the ball into an open net. The Gunners tails were up and the high octane pressing game paid dividends again five minutes later when Theo Walcott pounced on Malouda in his own half, Fabregas read the signal loud and clear and picked up the loose ball before lifting an inch perfect through ball onto the rampaging Walcott and Theo took his time before smashing the ball right into the bottom corner. The roof of the stadium was almost lifted clean off. Chelsea looked beaten.
However, Arsenal delight in making the nerves jangle slightly and Chelsea soon had a consolation when Drogba`s free kic k caught Arsenal napping. Djourou, van Persie and Song left their men as the ball drifted towards the six yard line, leaving Koscielny marking three Chelsea attackers and Branislav Ivanovic glanced a header past the committed Fabianski. The reaction would be critical, any nerves would compromise the game plan. But Arsenal didn`t err at all, they stayed focussed, they stayed committed and they held their positions. Wenger threw on Diaby and Chamakh to add some steel and height as the home side strung five across the middle and frustrated and stimmied Chelsea in the way they have us for the last few years. The away side scarcely threatened again and Arsenal should have extended their lead when Walcott`s clipped ball searched out Nasri, Kakuta looked to chest back to Cech but undercooked it and Nasri tried to lift his effort over Cech but the attempt was tame.
Another Drogba free kick caused mild consternation when Terry`s flick on drifted to the edge of the six yard box, Djourou`s clearance went as far as Drogba but Djourou propelled himself to block Drogba`s driven shot. Djourou was a very good shout for man of the match last night. Diaby really should have added some sheen to the score line when he dummied inside Terry, but delayed a left foot shot too long allowing Ivanovic to block. But these were minor details that underscored an excellent performance and a superb result. The focus of the team never erred, having grabbed the all important first goal, Arsenal played like snakes in the grass, leaping out with a quickfire attack before retreating to hold their territory. The three points puts us in a good position in the league with United and City now having to come to us, hopefully this should banish the home hoodoo as well as halting the tongues wagging with regards our big game mentality. But we must approach the Wigan match with the same vigour. The manager made some brave selections which paid off, Koscielny and Djourou complimented one another perfectly at the back and the midfield three dovetailed effortlessly. Walcott banished my reservations as to his starting place, because ultimately, he made the sort of match winning contribution expected from the likes of Nasri and Arshavin. Being a good Englishmen I toasted the victory by grabbing some very late night beers in Old Street and Oxford Circus before stumbling home at 5am to the strains of Take Me To the Whiskey Bar.LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE, 4.FABREGAS(c) (7.Rosicky `88), 14.WALCOTT (2.Diaby `73), 8.NASRI, 10.v.PERSIE (29.Chamakh `76). Unused: 18.Squillaci, 23.Arshavin, 52.Bendtner, 53.Szczesny.