Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5
At the final whistle, one of the gentlemen I attend away games with, Postman Pete, said, "This is why you go to every away game. Once in a while, this happens." Pete`s been going to Arsenal for almost 50 years so he`d know better than most. Games that can make you grin from ear to ear and punch the air 24 hours after the final whistle. For anyone who isn`t a Chelsea fan, it was an exhilarating game to watch. Over the years, this fixture has been cagey, but not yesterday. Certainly for the first 45 minutes both sides seemed to engage in some kind of entente cordiale that no sort of defending would take place.
The pre match routine for Stamford Bridge altered slightly. The midday kick off did not make our usual pre match pub lunch in The Sporting Page possible, so a bowl of cereal was my sole sustenance before entering the ground. Midday kickoffs always dilute the atmosphere and so it proved pre match, where the electricity always seems to generate well in advance of the game for this fixture. But if the supporters were a little sleepy, the players were producing fireworks from the off.
After a beautiful exchange of passes between Arteta and Ramsey- setting the tone for a midfield they would boss- Ramsey volleyed the ball to Walcott on the right. As he so often does, Walcott had the beating of Cole and whipped in a simple cross, leaving Gervinho before a yawning goal from six yards out. Inexplicably, he steered the ball wide. "We`ll lose this now; you don`t get many chances like that here." Was my verbatim riposte to Lord Lowe. How little I knew. Little more than 120 seconds later and the Gunners had sliced Chelsea open again; Walcott delivered a pinpoint cross to the back post for van Persie, but the ball was rising on connection and he could only lift it over from close range.
Having spurned two gilt edged chances; the script took on a familiar narrative. John Terry span a cross field ball to Juan Mata. Instead of holding Mata up, Santos dived in. Mata easily side stepped him before delivering a cross into the box where Mertesacker had lost the run of Lampard in a similar fashion to the manner in which he lost the run of van der Vaart three weeks ago and Lampard cushioned a header into the bottom corner. I felt at this point that getting rolled over by Chelsea was something of a foregone conclusion. So it was with some serendipity that Daniel Sturridge shanked a volley wide when all on his own in the area. But the players showed they weren`t ready to accept the formality.
On 36 minutes they levelled. The excellent Ramsey picked up Santos` pass and weaved a precise through ball to Gervinho, who had slipped between Ivanovic and Terry. Where the Ivorian had erred at Ewood Park in September, he made amends by slipping the ball to his captain who had an easy finish in front of an open goal. It looked as though Chelsea had reassumed the lead when Ramires sauntered past the struggling Santos and Sturridge toe ended his cross into the net, but the linesman correctly ruled it out for offside. But Arsenal`s good work appeared to have been undone on the stroke of half time. Lampard floated a corner into Arsenal`s area. Mertesacker got himself in an unsightly tangle trying to prevent the run of the odious John Terry and the ball appeared to hit Mertesacker before dribbling into the net in the manner of stray hair drifting down the plughole. Inexplicably, Arteta had left his station on the front post. The whistle blew for half time and the feeling was that we`d probably blown our chance of getting anything. As is custom at Chelsea; an ex player, or "Chelsea legend" is wheeled out before the home fans. This always gives us ample opportunity for mockery; such are the paucity of "legends" that have marked Chelsea`s "history." So when Frank Sinclair undertook a lap of honour the home fans were treated to a rendition of "he was here when you were sh*t" as well as "you don`t know who you`re clapping."
I`m sure we`ll never know what was said to the players at half time, but Arsene`s team talk had a greater effect than Villas Boas` managed. Maybe Arsene instilled into his players that Chelsea have never been this open playing against us before and the chance for goals was there. Arsenal were almost level within seconds of the half beginning when van Persie found Ramsey in the area, but the Welshman just lifted his shot over the bar. But Arsenal didn`t take long to level. Djourou robbed Ashley Cole of possession and found Alex Song; Song took the pass brilliantly with his instep before turning the ball wide to Andre Santos. The Brazilian had wandered into the canyon of space left by Bosingwa and steered his finish under Petr Cech for the equaliser. He then observed that greatest of unwritten rules. When Brazilian player scores, he must dance at the corner flag.
It wasn`t long before Arsenal had roared into the lead. Theo Walcott drifted in from the right. He quite comically kicked the ground and fell over. This appeared to bamboozle the Chelsea players who were incredibly tentative about trying to pick up the loose ball. Terry and Ivanovic eventually moved towards the ball, but by the time they had, Walcott had leapt to his feet and pushed the ball past both of them, before beating Cech at his near post yet again. A goal that produced a microcosm of a career to date. One second Walcott is falling over his own feet; and just as you`re ready to berate him for doing so, he`s scored a goal.
Arsenal`s belief was tangible. This time, they didn`t look fragile, or particularly troubled by Chelsea. So when Chelsea`s equaliser arrived with less than 15 minutes still to play, there was a sense of injustice and foreboding. Magnified by an extraordinary decision in the build up. Santos cheaply ceded possession to Meireles. As Meireles moved forward Lukaku clearly held Santos back. It was a foul so brazen I was surprised Lukaku attempted it. Astoundingly, Marriner saw fit to wave play on. A spectacular piece of officiating incompetence. Juan Mata picked up the loose ball on the edge of the box, Song dived in to block but unwittingly caused the resulting shot to dip beyond the reach of Szczesny to equalise. Once again, I felt the main priority at this point was to not lose the match.
That objective was aided when Szczesny rushed out of his area to intercept Terry`s long pass to Cole. Szczesny took Cole out on the edge of the area. The Pole could have had a red card for a professional foul or more simply for a reckless challenge. It was with some fortune that Marriner erred again; this time in our favour and only produced a yellow. But just as the Gunners prepared themselves for an onslaught, luck was on their side again. Florent Malouda was pressed into passing back towards his centre half and captain John Terry. The pass was over hit and Terry, seeing van Persie race onto the errant pass, decided simply to pretend to slip. With his face chewing canvas, in the dirt where it belongs, van Persie gleefully skipped through on goal, coolly rounding Cech before rolling the ball into the empty net.
Just as you were willing Arsenal to hold firm, they hit Chelsea on the counter attack again. Mata`s cross was headed clear by Koscielny, before Rosicky put his head in where it hurt on the edge of his own box to smuggle the ball away from Mikel. He found Arteta as the Gunners suddenly had four attackers on two defenders. Arteta shifted the ball to van Persie, who pulled back the hammer and lashed his hat trick goal past Cech, who conceded on his near post yet again. "Cheeeeeelsea, Cheeeeelsea, money can`t buy you history" came the chant from the Shed End as the visiting supporters were wrapped in delirium.
Though the game was something of a freak show footballistically, I felt Arsenal were good value for their win. The pace of Walcott and Gervinho was too much for Chelsea`s high line to handle. Ashley Cole may well have made his name by besting Ronaldo, but Walcott is a player he has never managed. The signs of the blossoming understanding between Arteta and Ramsey become more striking by the game. I think Arteta has brought the best out of Ramsey and the willingness he shows to get forward now is owed in no small part to the sense of security the Spaniard gives him. Ramsey`s passing is becoming more incisive, more penetrative. I thought he was the best player on the pitch yesterday. But of course, none of that good work is possible unless you`ve got a striker that can finish.
And by the Lord Dennis do we have one. This is a scenario whereby the statistics really do tell the whole story. In 2011, van Persie has 28 goals in 27 games. People seem to think he should be playing behind a main striker too. Really? He shows time and again that he has that piece of class that wins football games. It`s an incredible commodity. The players celebrated heartily at the final whistle. I understand if outsiders were to criticise them for over celebrating. But you could feel the belief generating amongst them in the second half and you sense that the result has given them a big boost after a collection of "slowly, slowly" results. It`s important now that the focus stays high because the fixture list presents us with some winnable games to really climb up the table. Often, there`s a danger of dropping after a big result and the team must be on high alert for that to not happen on Tuesday. For now, we toast a fantastic result, which I toasted with some friends in the White Horse before drinking well into the early hours. The headache seems barely relevant today. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 20.DJOUROU (25.Jenkinson `76), 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 11.A.SANTOS, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 16.RAMSEY, 14.WALCOTT (7.Rosicky `79), 27.GERVINHO (5.Vermaelen `86), 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused; 9.j-y.Park, 21.Fabianski, 23.Arshavin, 26.Frimpong.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA