Sunday, April 26, 2015

That Voodoo that You Do So Well: Mourinho Holds Off Wenger Again

Chelsea visited the Emirates today a mere two wins away from raising the league trophy for the sixth time. There was little doubt they would get those six points in their final six games, but there’s the little business of Wenger finally getting off the snide and beating his “rival” in their 13th encounter. Arsenal started the game with more of the ball, but without the ability to do much with it, surrounded by sheets of blue shirts that unfortunately had legs, arms and heads attached to them. One head in particular would be their undoing, that of the imperious Chelsea captain John Terry, who Mourinho claimed had his best game of their successful six years together. Few would disagree.

After an early Arsenal attack without any finished product, which was becoming the norm, a Chelsea counter almost opened the scoring on 16 minutes, when a lovely ball over the top from Fabergas freed Oscar to charge into the box and clip it over Ospina before the two clashed violently. But for a header clearance on the line by Bellerin, Chelsea would have been up 1-0. There were real questions about whether it was a penalty, but Michael Oliver wasn’t convinced and the resulting corner went for naught. There were also questions of whether Oscar should have been allowed to return, exhibiting clear signs of a concussion after the hard hit he took from Ospina. He was back on the pitch two minutes later and when Fabergas fell in the box in the 22nd minute and was shown a quick yellow for diving, Chelsea might have felt aggrieved yet again as replays showed his knee was clipped by Cazorla. The game started to open up from there, with Chelsea creating more pressure in the Arsenal final third, but the Gunners certainly holding their own with some fine tackling and interceptions and keeping John Terry and the Chelsea defense on their toes with a number of crosses and passes into the box.

As the clock passed 30 minutes, Terry had another important header clearance, just ahead of Giroud, who was poised to put a shot on goal from a Monreal cross. From here, Arsenal started to dominate possession and had their own penalty appeal in the 34th minute, when Cahill handled a Cazorla shot headed toward goal with his hand extended far beyond a natural position. Chelsea attacked after the missed call and a Coquelin foul on an attacking Hazard led to the first Arsenal yellow of the day. Arsenal got on the counter themselves a moment later before yet another poor pass from Sanchez, who was having a tough first half. Emblematic of his day, he gave the ball away 30 seconds later by merely backing into Ivanovic and waiting for a foul call that never came as the ball drifted slowly out of bounds. On 37 minutes, Ramirez was sent in on goal from a fine William pass, but his toe poke across goal from eight yards out was well collected by Ospina.

Sanchez continued his rather poor performance with a shot 10 yards wide from 15 yards out, after a nice cutback pass from Cazorla on the heels of Ramsey snatching the ball from Fabergas, who was being booed relentlessly by the Emirates crowd. A decent cross by Ramsey on 41 minutes was again cleared by Terry, who appeared to be the most important player on the pitch by a fair margin. Another bad pass from Sanchez inside the box on 42 minutes added some groans from the crowd to those his teammates had been voicing most of the half. Monreal showed why he was starting over Gibbs with a speedy recovery to stop a Chelsea attack down the right channel before Arsenal increased the pressure with a minute of regulation time left in the half, Ozil finally getting a shot away, though right at Courtois, followed by yet another Terry clearance in the box. Two minutes of extra time went by with a final Chelsea attack coming to nothing in the end.

The second half began with the 37-year-old Arsenal killer Didier Drogba coming on for Oscar, who was rushed to the hospital with a suspected concussion as Drogba took off his jumper. Sanchez continued his uneven performance giving the ball away within a minute of the restart, with Chelsea then settling into a spell of possession. On 51 minutes, Fabergas clanged into Ospina after the Columbian came out to collect a ball right at the edge of the box, but it was otherwise still Chelsea passing the ball around with Arsenal unable to get anything going offensively. Sanchez was fouled by Fabergas in the 55th minute, as the Gunners finally grabbed possession though the resulting free kick was again headed out and Chelsea were soon on the attack, with Azpilicueta shooting wildly over from just outside 18 yards.

Arsenal were having trouble putting together more than a few passes at a time as the clock moved toward the hour mark, when Giroud backheeled the ball in the box toward Bellerin, with Terry again coming to the rescue by outmuscling the Spaniard as the ball rolled harmlessly out of bounds. A third potential concussion followed almost immediately, as Coquelin and Drogba had a head-to-head clash in competition for a header, just as Fabergas threw away his face mask. Ozil was having trouble keeping possession, giving the ball away on several occasions before a careless handball on a cross field pass from Sanchez gave the impetus back to Chelsea on 63 minutes. A Monreal cross on 64 minutes was just clipped out by Terry ahead of a charging Sanchez, leading to a corner, collected amidst congested traffic by a strong Courtois. Drogba shot on goal with the next possession, but weakly, as the game began to open up again.

Ozil got in on goal with some clever Gunner passing, before a heavy touch led to yet another Terry intervention. Arsenal had a corner soon after, headed out by Matic with ease. William kicked Koscielny in the face on a challenge just outside the box, earning the third yellow of the game and Arsenal a free kick, that ended up at Mertesacker’s feet 17 yards out. The big German sent it horribly wide with a real chance to open the scoring. Terry headed out a forward ball to Ozil two minutes later killing forward momentum for the umpteenth time. Arsenal needed to change tactics, as they were playing too much through the middle, as Ivanovic became the fourth Chelsea player to get a booking on 72 minutes. The Blues soon earned their second corner of the game after a Drogba shot was blocked out by Monreal, but Arsenal headed clear. Sloppiness was really hurting Arsenal, as Koscielny ended a spell of possession by sending a wild pass out of bounds.

On 75 minutes, Koscielny intercepted a Chelsea pass in his own half, sent it across to an open Cazorla, who shot wide with plenty of time to do better. Welbeck then came on for Coquelin as Wenger pushed for the winner. Ramsey pounded a hard shot from far out, but it slammed into Giroud just on the cusp of 80 minutes. Welbeck was set free on 82 minutes, but took his time before shooting and was only able to earn a corner. Ozil sent the ball in but Courtois was adjudged to be fouled, when he was barely touched, and Arsenal lost a decent chance to score. Walcott came on for Giroud as Courtois finally rose to his feet (83’). Within a minute, Cazorla sent in a decent cross toward a charging Walcott, but Courtois was easily out to grab it. The calls were starting to go against the Gunners as a nice Monreal tackle garnered a whistle and a Chelsea free kick.

With five minutes left in regulation, Arsenal were pushing for the goal that would earn all three points, but Chelsea were using the dark art to slow momentum with every free kick followed by a player rolling around in ersatz pain. Sanchez led a counter on 88 minutes but his lofted pass to Ozil was a couple of feet too far. Ramsey earned a smart yellow card a minute later, stopping Hazard from running free toward goal. Fabergas came off on 90 minutes, booed by most of the Arsenal fans before they actually stood up and began to applaud in unison as he neared the sideline. Four more minutes stood between Chelsea and another point, when Sanchez sent a clever ball to Monreal, who crossed wonderfully in front of the face of goal. Ozil lined up a shot, but missed and then Welbeck, free to tap it in decided to try a backheel and missed the ball completely. Another cross a minute later just missed Welbeck’s head and then could have been finished by Walcott, but he inexplicably had his back turned. And that was the last real chance of the game as Chelsea effectively managed the four minutes of extra time for the 0-0 draw. Arsenal really should have scored in the last six minutes, but the search for a first Wenger win against Mourinho still goes on, with a sense time is running out on the French manager.

One thing fans might ask of Mourinho and Chelsea is whether lining up in two banks of four like Stoke City on the road is really the behavior of a Champion-elect. Wenger would certainly say no and while Mourinho will point to the league titles and other trophies, I do believe the aesthetics of the game matter and that the league will miss the French philosopher when he finally hangs up his zipper-challenged tube jacket for the last time. Mourinho might respond that Chelsea could easily have had two penalties and a third goal in a first half where they did get forward with real menace at times and they controlled the second half with long spells of possession football, even as there was little push for the winner. There is no question that Terry was the man of the match, as Arsenal only had only one shot on goal all game and Ozil or Welbeck really should have scored with two minutes left in extra time. It is the latter, besides his goal at United in the FA Cup, that questions should start to be asked of, as he just doesn’t seem to have the finishing mentality one needs from their forwards.

Regardless, Wenger can take both positives and negatives from the game. United were beaten 3-0 earlier in the day by Everton, meaning Arsenal picked up a point on one of their two rivals for second place, and the only mark against the top 5 Arsenal have this calendar year is the 2-1 loss at Tottenham. They were tough defensively and did have a few chances to win the game. On the other hand, Wenger now has zero wins in 13 chances against Mourinho and the title race, already a long shot, is now run. Arsenal should concentrate on finishing strongly and beating United in the penultimate match, to secure that second (or third, if City continue their recovery) spot and prepare themselves to finish the year with silverware in the FA Cup final for the second year running. Winning can become a habit as easily as losing can and Wenger’s Arsenal seem to be on the up the past two seasons. The right signings this summer could augur a real chance for the title next season. But it will be Mourinho who leaves the Emirates the happier man, knowing another domestic title is now his, the only question remaining when they will officially cross the line. Are the two even rivals at the moment? Not until Wenger finally secures three points. His next chance will come in the Fall.

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