Arsenal retained top spot in the Premier League with a thunderous 1-0 win over Chelsea
Arsenal retained top spot in the Premier League with a thunderous 1-0 win over Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The only goal of the game came in first-half injury-time when Petr Cech missed a left-wing corner from Cesc Fabregas and William Gallas steered in a header against his old team.
The victory was just about deserved. Arsenal were the slicker team in the first half and weathered an almighty Chelsea storm in the second. Arsène Wenger’s side had two goals ruled out in the dying seconds — on another day both might have stood — and when the full-time whistle blew they were looking the stronger team.
However top-four games are always going to be tight and today had seen a pair of them. ‘Grand Slam’ Sunday resulted in the top two easing away from the other two.
It may be the shape of things to come.
There had been injury doubts over Cesc Fabregas, Alex Hleb and Mathieu Flamini in the build-up to this game. In the end all three started and, perhaps surprisingly, Robin van Persie was left on the bench. However it should be remembered that the Dutchman had made only a 65-minute comeback after two months out with a knee problem in the midweek win over Steaua Bucharest.
The other changes from that game were: Manuel Almunia, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Emmanuel Adebayor. Only Bacary Sagna and Gallas retained their places.
Manchester United’s win at Anfield a few hours had cranked the pressure in this match a notch or two higher. That result had pushed Arsenal down into second and Wenger knew only a victory would retain the status quo.
The opening stages were perhaps too manic for the game’s own good. Fabregas’ deflected free-kick was about as good as it got for either side.
Gradually, the football took over from the frenetic fayre. In the 13th minute, Adebayor pressurised the backtracking Alex into nodding the ball over his own keeper. Fortunately for Chelsea it drifted wide.
The visitors flew up the other end and Shaun Wright-Phillips’s long-range drive forced a flying save from Almunia.
By now, Arsenal were starting to pass the ball nicely. But there was little to test Cech. Fabregas floated a free-kick just over the bar on the half-hour and then it was Almunia’s hands which were stung by a fierce long-range volley from Andrei Shevchenko.
Rosicky rippled the sidenetting shortly afterwards after darting in from the left and, significantly, seven minutes before the break John Terry limped off to be replaced by Tal Ben-Haim. The England captain had been limping since a challenge from Eboue a few minutes earlier.
Arsenal were going into the break in the ascendancy — they had enjoyed the greater possession and territory — however there had been precious little to show for it.
Deep into injury time Rosicky was robbed as he burst into the area from the left. Fabregas curled the corner to the far post, Cech missed the ball with a flailing fist and Gallas emerged to nod home.
It was a hammer blow to Chelsea after a competitive first half and they set about redressing the balance straight after the restart.
The visitors stole the initiative from the first whistle but, you sensed, did not quite know what to do with it. This is where the absence of the injured Didier Drogba was being felt. And, of course, Chelsea’s attacking only invited Arsenal to counter. They did not need a second invitation.
In the 57th minute Wright-Phillips curled a low ball across the face of goal. A couple of minutes later Almunia dived full-stretch to prevent John Obi-Mikel’s rasping drive finding the far corner.
Eboue was stretchered off after being felled in mid-flight by Joe Cole. Van Persie came in and immediately caused problems for the Chelsea defence.
To this point, the visitors had struggled to create a close-range chance. They put that right with 15 minutes left, Claudio Pizarro floated in a cross from the left, Shevchenko flicked on and an unmarked Wright-Phillips volleyed woefully wide from six yards out. A glaring miss.
It was the England midfielder’s last touch of the game. Avram Grant brought on another striker, Salomon Kalou, straight away.
The Cameroonian hammered a shot just wide with his first meaningful touch. However that effort came after Arsenal had carved out their best opportunity of the half. Rosicky robbed Joe Cole then Adebayor and Hleb combined in a sweeping move that saw Van Persie hoist his shot over the bar.
The Dutchman thought he had had slid home the killer goal with six minutes left but Adebayor’s pass to Rosicky in the build-up had been ruled offside. In the 88th minute Cech made a wonderful double save from Fabregas as Arsenal pushed forward.
Almost immediately Adebayor strode through and planted a shot home, only for referee Alan Wiley to rule he had held off his marker with a bit too much brute force.
But Chelsea still pressed and Arsenal had to thank Almunia at the death for tipping a fizzing Shevchenko free-kick just over the bar. The last kick of the game saw Fabregas fluff a relatively simple chance after being set-up by substitute Nicklas Bendtner.
The final whistle came a few seconds later. The roar with which was greeted was 50 per cent elation, 50 per cent relief.
It had been that sort of game.