Chelsea 3 – 5 Arsenal
1 – 0 Lampard (14)
1 – 1 van Persie (36)
2 – 1 Terry (45)
2 – 2 Santos (48)
2 – 3 Walcott (55)
3 – 3 Mata (80)
3 – 4 van Persie (85)
3 – 5 van Persie (90)
As if being drawn to the surface by a corkscrew, the season is twisting out of the bottle to unleash its vintage. The encounters between the Great and the Good are producing an exhilarating mix of superb counter-attacking with equally poor defending. All it missed was a red card and Szczesny tried his damndest to fulfil that part of the deal, Koscielny’s form putting enough doubt in the referee’s mind. A close call, one that went Arsenal’s way for a change.
Yesterday provided no respite from this heady cocktail and so long as Arsenal emerge victorious, I don’t want it to stop.
It was an astonishing victory, quite astonishing for so many reasons. Not that it makes the win any more or less emotionally satisfying, just the fact that it was on so many levels, a delicious serving of revenge. It does not wipe the pain of Old Trafford but it helps. It does not erase the memory of Cardiff, Wembley or any number of Premier League defeats where Didier Drogba has bullied, swatted and utterly mastered an Arsenal defence. But it helps.
And until the return meeting in April, it is the result that will stay longest in the mind between the two sides.
Those of us of a certain ‘maturity’ well remember what dour and ugly affairs these matches were in the 70s and 80s. Stamford Bridge and its surrounds were inhospitable, the pitches no better with sand dunes where grass once laid. It is a far cry from the Premier League era. Indeed this match is a distant cousin to many encounters through the years with an openess rarely seen from Chelsea allowing Arsenal to express their intentions to put the recent past behind them.
The opening minutes gave clear indication of the spirit in which this match was being played. Chelsea had opportunities; Cole, Sturridge and Torres were denied by a combination of poor choices, bad finishing and outstanding defending, Per Mertesacker blocking the Spaniard’s attacking run with an outstanding header. At the other end, Gervinho missed the opportunity of the match so far by missing the target with the goal gaping; van Persie was no more accurate moments later.
The cup-tie spirit continued unabated and by the quarter hour mark, the threatened goal had materialised. That Chelsea scored provided a bitter but not entirely surprising moment. Santos was struggling to adapt to the ferocity of the attacking and Mata sprang another surprise on the Brazilian by crossing early, Lampard had found space and subsequently the net. 1 – 0 to the hosts and uncomfortable parallels were drawn with previous visits to the scene of the crime.
Early punches traded, the sides probed and ceded possession too readily to create a threat of note although Sturridge was guilty of another miss, not as glaring as before perhaps. It proved costly as van Persie turned home a fantastic equaliser. Aaron Ramsey found Gervinho and the Ivorian had timed his run to perfection, tearing the Chelsea defence asunder; van Persie followed and the Ivorian served notice that he intends to create more than 15 of van Persie’s next Arsenal century.
Parity was almost short-lived with Sturridge’s effort rightly ruled out for offside. Relief did not last long as perma-victim John Terry gave Chelsea the lead with a scruffy but almost typically conceded goal on the stroke of half-time. There is a joke in there somewhere about the Arsenal defence being an accident blackspot…
The lead gave the hosts a glimmer of three points. It was the closest they were to come to that total; within ten minutes of the restart they were chasing the game. Andre Santos is having his weight questioned but having been given a bit of a torrid introduction, he settled and crashed home the equaliser as the Chelsea defence went AWOL. It got worse for The Blues when Theo Walcott showed some good old John Bull qualities, strength, bundling his way through the midfield and then the presence of mind to pick himself up when fouled, instead of emulating the slack-jaw mental aptitude of the hosts, he slotted past Cech to give Arsenal a lead for the first time.
Chelsea probed but fumbled like a teenager on a first date, for the next twenty five minutes. They knew where they wanted to be but lacked the guile to unlock the defence. When they did equalise, foul play was afoot with Lukaku interfering. It is harsh to pay much attention to this, Mata’s finish was simply outstanding.
That proved irrelevant. As Chelsea pushed forward, they left gaps which were ruthlessly exposed by Arsenal, Robin van Persie completing a hat-trick with two late counter-strikes. john Terry’s slip made it clear that this afternoon at least, the status of top dog would be returning north of the River. Who cares how the winning goals come in the build-up, the Dutchman’s finishes were indisputable.
van Persie is garnering the headlines and why not, a hat-trick at a close rival is nothing to be sniffed at. Yet I feel more compelled by the performance of others. Chief of which is Theo Walcott. I freely admit that Walcott infuriates, talented beyond the ability of many and today was one of the better in an Arsenal shirt, humiliating Ashley Cole with a maturity in his attacking display that belies his years.
Defensively, Laurent Koscielny is being inspired by the prospect of competition from Thomas Vermaelen for a place in the centre of defence. The Frenchman controlled Torres, subdued his threat and with Mertesacker just marshalled the Chelsea attack into less threatening positions. When they did pursue the route to the back of the net, formidable barriers were put in their way.
Paolo di Canio is far from being anyone’s cup of tea but he recently said of his Swindon players,
With some players, if he has a chihuahua character I can’t make a chihuahua into a rottweiler. He could be a proud chihuahua but he remains a chihuahua. So many of the players at the moment are chihuahuas away from home
Arsenal found yesterday that they don’t have any chihuahua’s.