Sunday, January 24, 2016

Arsenal Lose to Chelsea Again (1-0): Title Challenge Collapsing?

Arsenal faced off against their bête noir over the last decade at the Emirates today, though without Wenger’s nemesis Mourinho even in the stadium. The recent league fixtures have been all Chelsea, with Arsenal failing to win any of the past eight and failing to score in any of the past five. The Gunners could take some confidence from having beaten Chelsea in the Community Shield to start the season for Wenger’s first, and now only, victory over the Portuguese manager now prostrating himself before United’s brass. Nonetheless, Arsenal were certainly the favorites heading in, having only lost once at home way back in the opening game shocker against West Ham. They could go back top with a win while Chelsea were mired in 14th place, their title defense in tatters and a bad run away from the relegation zone. And yet it was Chelsea who found themselves up a man and a goal after an uninspiring first 25 minutes from the home team that fit the script of so many of these matchups in the past.

Arsenal did have a decent chance within the first two minutes, when Walcott got around Ivanovic on the touchline and was able to cut it back to Campbell, free in the middle of the box. The Costa Rican scuffed his shot, however, and the chance was gone. Chelsea had a chance of their own soon after, with Mertesacker and Koscielny playing their version of a Keystone Cops routine, giving Oscar a decent shot at the near post, though it was pushed out by Cech. It was back and forth from there, until Flamini had a marginal penalty claim before 10 minutes had passed, though it was probably a good no call from Clattenburg. A minute later, Azpilicueta’s cynical foul on a charging Bellerin did earn the first yellow of the game.

In the 15th minute, Chelsea should have taken the lead when William ended up with the ball eight yards out with only Cech to beat, but his shot was weak and easily saved by the ex-Chelsea keeper. Giroud then teed up from 25 yards out on a counter that Chelsea got back quickly on. It was a rather ambitious effort but maybe justified as the Frenchman has failed to have scored in his first seven appearances against Chelsea and, in fact, only Flamini and Walcott had ever scored against the Blues among the starting 11. Before Arsenal could really get into the game, for the second time against Chelsea this season, they were down to 10 men, this time on a foul by Mertesacker trying to catch up to Diego Costa free on goal because of poor positioning from the lumbering German (18’). Unlike the first matchup, when Gabriel was goaded into a red by Costa’s antics, this one appeared to be the right call, as Koscielny was a step behind Costa’s line to goal. What Mertesacker was thinking is beyond me, as Diego Costa is not that quick and Chelsea had almost gotten behind the defense a couple of times already. To make matters worse, Giroud was taken off for Gabriel four minutes later, meaning the Gunner’s task of winning with 10 was that much more difficult without the aerial threat and holdup play of the big Frenchman. And it took mere seconds for a cross from Ivanovic to find Diego Costa at the near post and give Chelsea the lead (23’). Costa was rampant throughout, before being taken off with a second half knock, continuing his impressive revival under Hiddink, and his ability to absolutely terrorize the Gunners.

Fabergas was also arguably playing his best game of the season so far and almost doubled Chelsea’s lead in the 31st minute, with an excellent run around five Gunner defenders, before his shot was parried away by Cech. In the 34th minute, great incisive passing by Arsenal almost led to an equalizer, as Walcott got free at the far post and shot across goal, only to be rightfully adjudged marginally offsides. Even as that moment was close, it still seemed hard to justify taking out Giroud for a misfiring Walcott, particularly as Chelsea began to sit back – thus enveloping the superior pace of the English International. Walcott did get beyond Chelsea again in the 40th minute, but went seconds early for a second time, undermining the opportunity (though for the second time he also flubbed the chance – not knowing he was offsides). Costa had a chance to double Chelsea’s lead again in the 42nd minute, firing a powerful shot just saved by Cech at the near post. Monreal cleared the resultant corner off the line and Arsenal had a decent shot at a counter, though Ozil failed to link up with Walcott, swallowed up by two surrounding Blues. Right on the stroke of halftime, a great lofted pass from Ramsey found Flamini a few yards outside the mouth of the goal, but he tried to score with his off foot and skied it. Ironically, the Frenchman only in because Coquelin is just recovering from his injury, had the two best chances of the first half, though he was unable to make a good go of either.

The second half saw Chelsea earn a corner within the first minute and a half though Ramsey was able to clear. Costa was flagged offsides twice in quick succession, as Arsenal maintained a high line in search of an equalizer. Walcott was lively in the early going of the second period, but giving the ball away far too often (three times in less than two minute) to go with many more earlier in the game. The Gunners put together a good run of passes without getting the ball in the box, before Ramsey gave it up, though Flamini quickly got the ball back and lofted it to Walcott, offsides yet again. Three straight corners for Chelsea followed as the half reach 10 minutes, Arsenal able to clear each and then escape a marginal penalty call on Fabergas as Koscielny clattered into him in the box. Sanchez came on in the 57th minute for the first time since November to huge applause, taking over for Campbell, who scuffed a great early chance to give the Gunners the lead. Walcott moved to the right and Sanchez took up his position on the left, with Ozil the furthest man forward in the middle.

Sanchez’s first driving run earned a yellow for Matic as he ran right into the Chilean (59’) but his resultant free kick went harmlessly through the box and out. Arsenal started to grow in stature and earned a free kick in a dangerous position as the clock rolled toward 63 minutes. Ozil lined it up and the Gunners had three good chances in seconds to tie it up, with Sanchez flubbing his and Ramsey’s rebound slamming into a stalwart Chelsea defense. The Gunners certainly had their chances at an equalizer, but lacked the cutting edge necessary to draw even, with Ozil and Walcott both appearing below their best. Flamini and Bellerin did show real hunger in the 66th minute, earning Arsenal a corner, but it was well collected by Courtois, before he threw the ball away as Costa lay in the box injured, to be replaced by Remy. Fabergas had a shot in the 70th minute, but right at Cech, who easily collected it. Arsenal were pressing well and had the upper hand in possession, though the extra man was helping Chelsea get the ball back before any real opportunities emerged.

Mikel had a nasty foul on Sanchez in the 72nd minute as he put his arm out as Sanchez tried to round him, earning a yellow even as the fans were pining for a different color. Two minutes later, Ox came on for a largely ineffective Walcott and soon after Hazard came on for Oscar, as Chelsea tried to finally cross the line with his 50th goal for the club (having gone 30 games without one in all comps this season). Ox forced a corner on the replay, as he was able to catch up to a Sanchez pass and knock it off Azpilicueta. Arsenal built again, but Ozil gave the ball away, continuing to look off his best. The Gunners were passing the ball around with real style now, highlighted by some excellent exchanges between Sanchez and Monreal on the left, but couldn't seem to find a shot on goal as the game moved to its final 10 minutes.

Arsenal earned another corner in the 84th minute, but were beaten to it at the near post. Another free kick on 85 minutes almost fell in as Courtois dropped the ball and a cleaner hit by Koscielny would have seen the Gunners even. A minute later, Bellerin got a cross in to Ox, who pushed it further across goal and Flamini tried to backheel it, though Courtois was able to collect it. It was the third good chance for Flamini and while one doesn’t expect him to be on the score sheet, more poised finishing could have even seen the Gunners earn all three point. Moments later, Monreal had a chance himself, though he inexplicably tried to cross with his left rather than take a shot with his right, ultimately seeing the ball fly out for a goal kick. The clock rolled toward 90 with Arsenal looking suddenly a little deflated, having missed plenty of good chances to get back into the game; five minutes left to score for the first time in six matches against Chelsea. They continued to play with real verve and intent, but an errant pass from Sanchez, not his first since coming on, saw momentum fizzle with only two minutes to play. Arsenal earned a corner with one minute left and Cech made his way down the pitch, trying to score against his former side, though Remy was able to clear at the near post. Chelsea held on and it was yet another loss for Wenger against Chelsea.

When we look back on another season where an Arsenal title run fell apart in the second half, as I now believe it is likely to, there will be a few games that exemplify their continued inability to maintain the focus and form necessary to get over the line across an entire 38-game season. There will be the inexplicable 4-0 hiding from Southampton, the late goal conceded to Liverpool that cost them two valuable points, the terrible November run and then this game, a great chance to finally show up Chelsea and maintain their three-point lead over City, but instead suffering the double against their London rivals, where they had two more red cards than goals. Arsenal can take some solace in the fact they essentially outplayed Chelsea once they had conceded the goal, but without the necessary equalizer, it will be shallow solace indeed.

The Gunners next face Burnley in the FA Cup six days from now, then host Southampton before heading on the road to play Bournemouth. They will need to win these three fixtures to stop the rot and get back on track, as they then host Leicester and Barcelona before a trip to a United team that might have a new manager by then. Barring a visit to the Etihad in the penultimate game, Arsenal have a very winnable run-in in their last eight, but need to stay close enough to the top to make the possibility of a late title run viable. The rebound will have to start soon or questions about how long they can hang in with Wenger will amplify yet again. Seeing Sanchez on the pitch for the first time since November and the imminent return of Coquelin might yet give Arsenal the push they need to recover, though.

On the flip side, Chelsea remain undefeated under Hiddink and have moved up to 13th in the table, mere points from the top half. With a winnable FA Cup tie against MK Dons followed by a trip to Watford and then home games against United and Newcastle, the Blues can start to build momentum toward a run up the table. It was not a beautiful game by the visitors today, but they held firm against an Arsenal team hard to beat at the Emirates this term and earned a valuable three points that should kill the silly talk of a relegation battle for good.

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