Monday, December 27, 2010

Arsenal shed their burden against faltering Chelsea

It may well be something of an overstatement at this stage of the season, with not even half of the campaign elapsed, but last night’s Premier League meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea was the archetypal “must-win” game for both sides —  – or, at the very least, “must-not-lose.”
Both teams entered the game with big question marks against the credibility of their respective title challenges. Chelsea were on a wretched run of form, having won just one of their last seven fixtures to drop from first place to fourth. Arsenal, similarly, were tasked with throwing aside the burden of their poor recent results against fellow title contenders and prove they are not big-stage bottlers.
In that context, it was perhaps no surprise to see a cautious, safety-first approach from both teams in the early exchanges. Neither goalkeeper was tested, raising fears that a nervous, drab nil-nil lay in wait — but we needn’t have worried; this was just the calm before an exhilarating storm.
As the first half wore on, Arsenal found their passing rhythm and grew in confidence. The always-important Cesc Fabregas, previously a peripheral figure, had space to exert control on the midfield manoeuvrings with his deft passing skills; Samir Nasri and the erratic yet dangerous Theo Walcott repeatedly ran with pace and purpose at their full backs; Robin Van Persie looked capable of darting into the space behind the Chelsea defence.
Chelsea were on the ropes, relying on a series of increasingly desperate defensive clearances and waiting for relief in the form of the half time whistle. Going forward, they had nothing to offer; Didier Drogba was isolated, Saloman Kalou and Florent Malouda anonymous, Frank Lampard dominated.
The reigning champions simply couldn’t sustain any meaningful possession, and their rare sorties on the counter-attack were swiftly extinguished by a startling lack of precision and purpose.
After half an hour, Arsenal were starting to purr. Chances had been few before Arsene Wenger’s team finally came close in the 41st minute, when another spell of pressure resulted in Nasri receiving possession in space, 20 yards from goal, and lifting a delicate chip towards the top left corner; Petr Cech, tested for the first time, was equal to the task, leaping acrobatically to tip the ball away for a corner that was safely dealt with.
At that point, Carlo Ancelotti on the Chelsea bench must have breathed a big sigh of relief, hoping that Cech’s save was enough to keep his side on level terms going into the interval.
But there was sufficient time for Arsenal to maintain the pressure and finally grab the goal they deserved as Alex Song strode into the penalty area and thrashed a low shot past the helpless Cech.
Half-time and 1-0 behind, something had to change for Chelsea, and Ancelotti was quick to act by replacing John Obi Mikel with the more attack-minded Brazilian Ramires for the start of the second half.
It changed nothing; Arsenal were still emphatically in the ascendancy, and needed just five minutes to double their advantage. Hesitant Chelsea defending created the opportunity as a loose attempted clearance from Michael Essien released Walcott clean through on goal, and the winger showed maturity and awareness to eschew his shooting opportunity in favour of squaring the ball to the unmarked Fabregas for a simple prod into the empty net.
Remarkably, two minutes later it was 3-0 as the Gunners pounced upon another defensive error — Malouda this time the culpable party for dwelling in possession inside his own half — and Fabregas returned the favour by releasing Walcott, whose crisply struck and perfectly placed low finish zipped past Cech into the bottom left hand corner.
3-0, 52 minutes played, and Arsenal weren’t just beating Chelsea: they were destroying them, annihilating them, embarrassing them. By producing a fast-paced and ruthless demonstration of high-class football, the Gunners were glaringly exposing their opponents’ fragile confidence and lack of direction. It was a rout.
But Arsenal rarely make things easy for themselves, and they contrived to hand Chelsea a lifeline when slack marking from a Drogba free kick allowed Branislav Ivanovic to head past Lukasz Fabianski, reducing the deficit to 3-1.
Chelsea took some encouragement from the goal and briefly rallied, but they still lacked any cutting edge — with Drogba once again worryingly ineffective — and Arsenal always looked capable of scoring again.
With 20 minutes remaining Nasri wasted a glorious chance to restore his team’s three-goal advantage, shooting weakly at Cech after being put through by substitute Gael Kakuta’s limp back-header. But it mattered little; Chelsea never seriously threatened to mount a comeback, and Arsenal held onto the 3-1 victory with ease.
So where does this leave both teams? For Arsenal, the proverbial monkey is well and truly off their back. They now know they can beat the big names, and this victory could end up meaning far more to them than the simple accumulation of three points.
Only time will tell, but this may prove to be a defining moment in the maturation of Wenger’s young team – if they can ally their cultured passing approach with this kind of controlled aggression on a regular basis, their trophy drought will surely soon end.
As for Chelsea, the woes continue. They deserved their heavy defeat.  It was a bad result, but an even worse performance. They didn’t look like scoring goals and always looked like conceding them; something has gone badly wrong at the Bridge (maybe just the unavoidable ageing of their key players), and Ancelotti faces an extremely anxious few weeks.

Monday, December 13, 2010

United do enough as Blues return to form

     Two games in the upper reaches of the Premier League this weekend produced fixtures that were similar only in their frenzied tempo and the fact they both contained penalty misses by star strikers.
     Tottenham and Chelsea’s 1-1 draw on Sunday afternoon was an enjoyably open and entertaining encounter; Manchester United’s victory over Arsenal last night, by contrast, was a rather dour affair.
     Despite playing their way to the top of the league, Arsenal seemed to enter the game at Old Trafford having taken notice of the widespread criticism they’ve received for being physically lightweight, transforming themselves from a group of subtle and thoughtful artistes into a bunch of cloggers — even Andrey Arshavin, the modern-day total footballer, was flying into brutal challenges.
     Unfortunately, the robust approach adopted by the Gunners meant that the first half was almost devoid of incident until Park Ji Sung’s wonderfully improvised headed goal shortly before the interval.
     It was the archetypal “game that needed a goal”, and the second half was better, much better, as a result of  Park’s opener. Now trailing, Arsenal could no longer play for the nil-nil draw, as had appeared to be the limit of their ambitions during the opening period.
     With renewed levels of purpose and intent, Arsenal’s pass masters Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky started to produce their usual fast, clever interplay towards the edge of United’s penalty area, with Marouane Chamakh looking increasingly capable of unsettling Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
     But United were offering a threat on the counter-attack, and a passage of play shortly before the hour mark neatly encapsulated the strengths and weaknesses of the game’s most eye-catching individual, Nani.
     Receiving the ball on the right wing after a fast break by Anderson, Nani appeared to have wasted the promising position by allowing himself to be dispossessed far too easily by Gael Clichy.
     But the Portuguese winger rectified his error by immediately winning the ball back and striding towards goal, only to launch his shot hopelessly over the bar. Brilliant and awful within the space of five seconds — that’s Nani.
     A few minutes later Arsene Wenger unleashed his big guns from the bench as fit-again Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie entered the fray. But they had little impact as the game reverted to the scrappy, attritional mode that had been prevalent in the first half.
     Then came the moment that should have sealed the points in United’s favour. Nani was again at the fore, tussling with Clichy near the byline and sending over a firm low cross that cannoned against the arm of the Arsenal defender from point-blank range.
     There was absolutely no intent from Clichy — it would have been almost impossible for him to get out of the way — but the linesman swiftly threw up his flag to signal a penalty.
      The decision was harsh on Arsenal, but justice was served when Wayne Rooney blazed the spot kick high over the crossbar. Rooney had been a peripheral figure and perhaps there was some frustration behind his decision to smash the ball as hard as he possibly could, but it was difficult to feel too much sympathy because the penalty shouldn’t have been awarded in the first place.
        So Arsenal were still in the game, but they never looked like taking advantage of their reprieve. United were organised and resolute in defence, bottling up any space around the centre of the field and resultantly restricting the Gunners to speculative long-range efforts. Fabregas, lacking match fitness, was unusually wasteful in possession, while van Persie was forced to drop into harmless deep-lying positions in a fruitless attempt to exert any kind of influence on the action.
        The final minutes drifted away with Arsenal’s only opportunity being squandered by Theo Walcott’s woefully mis-hit volley, and United held onto the victory with relative ease.
        United did just about enough without producing anything like their best form, and Arsenal should regret their first-half approach — adding a much-needed physical dimension to their play is one thing, forgetting the qualities that make them such a free-scoring team is another.
        The previous day, Chelsea will have been both relieved and frustrated that they failed to take all three points despite a dominant performance at White Hart Lane — relieved because they trailed for nearly an hour after Roman Pavlyuchenko’s 15th-minute opener, but frustrated because they were by far the better team and were only denied victory by Didier Drogba’s injury time penalty miss.
       But the Blues can take plenty of encouragement from what was their best performance for a long time. Having looked lethargic and one-paced in the last few games, Sunday’s showing was far more like the Chelsea we’re used to. And with Manchester United and Arsenal coming up next, their promised renaissance couldn’t have come at a better time.