A predictable headline I know, but all the more fitting given how the two other players directly affected by his transfer to Chavski played such a massive part in this victory – Messrs Gallas and Clichy, the first grabbing the winner, the second putting in the outstanding performance of the day.
On the back of five dropped points out of six in the North-East, we finally returned to the comfort of home. Unfortunately the fixture list didn’t provide with a home banker to get our form back on track, but instead a game against our bogey team over the last few seasons. Having not beaten them in six league games, a Charity Shield and a Carling Cup final since their ‘Special One’ took charge, it’s fair to say that they have held an Indian sign over us recently. Which is quite amazing because prior to this barren spell, we had their number for the best part of a decade.
However we were provided with some comfort with the returns of Cesc, Hleb and the Flamster – three of our best players this season – who we had sorely missed on our away travails. Robin van Persie, who had returned in midweek against Bucharest, took his place on the subs bench, meaning that we lined up in a 4-5-1, with Hleb the furthest forward of the midfielders. I personally had hoped that we would start with two up-front to try and put the opposition to the sword, but Le Boss stuck with the formation that had served him so well in RvP’s absence. And despite rumours that he’d bottle it again, our old buddy Cashley Hole did start for the Blues, who were weakened by the loss of Drogba to injury and Essien to suspension. If ever there was a golden opportunity to beat them, this was it.
With the Mancs grabbing a somewhat lucky win over the Scousers earlier on it was imperative we got off to a fast start and imposed ourselves on the game. The Flamster underlined this intent in the first five minutes when he bulldozed through the middle but eventually ran out of steam. Just before the quarter hour we had our first effort on goal but his shot was high, wide and handsome. And then comically we nearly went in front as Ade chased a long ball and pressurised Alex. The big Brazilian scored an own goal for us last season and nearly repeated the trick this time as his header back to Cech looped over the keeper but agonisingly wide. Minutes later Chelsea broke from their own half with Shaun Wright-Phillips. He had Shevchenko to one side and Joe Cole to another, but opted to shoot from 25 yards out. It was a good effort that but well held by Manuel. If he was a Gooner though then I’d have be screaming at him for not playing in Joe Cole who would’ve been one-on-one with the keeper.
And then on the half-hour it got niggly. Cesc received the ball on the edge of the area and managed to stumble past Makelele. As he lay on the floor that English beacon of light John Terry came steaming in and launched himself at man and ball. To be far, he did get some of the ball, but the way he followed through was uncalled for. Cesc got up straight away and confronted the angelic captain of England, and in no uncertain terms asked him just what the f*ck he was playing at. Cesc takes no bullsh*t from anybody, I love the little fella! It all resulted in a bit of melee as players came in from all angles to intervene. In the end JT got a yellow card for his troubles, but the niggle did not stop there. Ade got pulled up for a foul on the England skipper and immediately he got up and started remonstrating to the ref. Cashley joined in too in the usual Chelsea manner of hassling the ref until they get their way. Mourinho may have left, but his confrontational ways still remain ingrained in the players.
Shevchenko – who had been anonymous for the most part – then exhibited one of the classy moments that shot him to prominence at Kiev and Milan. Scrappy play in midfield eventually saw the ball finding its way to him and he let rip with a horrible swerving shot that stung the hands of Almunia, who parried the ball wide enough so that no-one could follow up the rebound. But it wasn’t the save of a rock-solid keeper, that’s for sure. And then John Terry’s whirlwind five minutes ended badly for him as Eboue challenged for a ball in the box but caught Terry’s foot with his studs as it was cleared. Now I’m honestly not sure whether it was deliberate or not, I know Eboue has his murky moments but this time I reckon he was genuinely going for the ball. He got a booking for his troubles but that was nothing compared to the fate of Terry who limped off five minutes later with what looked like the curse of the metatarsal.
Without their skipper Chelsea had some defending to do at the end of the first 45. Cesc slipped in Rosicky on the left but his first touch was slightly heavy meaning that he could not get his shot away as Ferreira diverted it behind for a corner. Cesc went over to take it (how we’ve missed a decent corner taker in his and Robin’s absence) and flighted it in towards the back post. It seemed like meat and drink for keeper of Petr Cech’s calibre, but inexplicably he missed it completely as it landed on the forehead of Captain Willy Gallas who directed it in to the empty net. 1-0 to the Arsenal! What a mistake by Cech, of all the keepers in the world he would be the last on your list to make a cock-up like that. If someone had said to you before the game that a keeper would flap at a corner and the opposition skipper would score, you would have put your house on Almunia being the guilty party and Terry being the gleeful recipient, not the mirror image occurring. Having seen the replay, a few things occurred to me: firstly, the way Gallas slowly trudged upfield meaning that there was no-one actually marking him. Secondly, the player closest to him was Tal Ben Haim, who had come on to replace John Terry, and thirdly the cheeky little shove in the back that Gallas gave him. Had that been Terry I doubt he would have been muscled off so easily, and even if he had, him and his teammates would have been screaming blue murder! The fact that the goal came on the stroke of half-time made it all the sweeter.
The second-half was set up perfectly for Arsenal as the away side had to come out and play whilst the Gunners could simply pick them off on the counter. Things started sloppily though with neither team able to create an opening for the first fifteen minutes of the half. Just before the hour SWP received the ball on the right-side of the area and flashed the ball right across the face of the goal, like a warning shot fired across our bows. Just a minute later John Obi Wan Kenobi had a powerful effort from 20-yards that Almunia did well once again to parry wide and not in front of him. Shevchenko’s follow up was more comfortably dealt with by the Spaniard at his near-post.
Arsenal were struggling to create anything, partly due to Chelsea defending stoutly but also due to a lack of cutting edge/confidence to shoot. There was a lot of neat build-up play in and around Chelsea’s 18-yard line but often the players went for a pass too many. The number of times one of the boys in red could have brought the ball under control and shot instead of playing a one-two was becoming frustrating. However that was all changed when Robin came on for the (apparently) injured Eboue with twenty minutes left. I say apparently injured because Eboue is like the boy who cried wolf – nobody knows when he is telling the truth or just faking it. The substitution saw us revert to a 4-4-2 which was a positive move because for a team like ours the best form of defence is certainly attack. Umpteen times I have seen Le Boss bring on a defensive player causing us to lose the initiative and even lose a goal, so this made for a refreshing change. The whole impetus of the team seemed to change with Robin’s introduction as we posed a more direct and incisive threat, as evidenced by his immediate involvement. Firstly he made a diagonal run to get on the end of Cesc’s pass but his return ball went astray, and secondly he had a low effort on goal himself from an angle that made life uncomfortable for Cech and the Chelsea defence. No-one else in red and white would have even dreamt of shooting from there.
By this stage Chelsea had brought on Pizzaro up-front to partner Shevchenko, and the combination of the pair nearly saw SWP break Arsenal hearts. Pizzaro chipped it into in the general direction of Shevchenko who had made enough of a nuisance of himself for Gallas’ to miscue his header. The Ukrainian had also attracted attention of Gael Clichy, meaning that Gallas’ flick-on saw the ball dropping to SWP unmarked at the back-post. Thankfully, mercifully, unbelievably, with the goal gaping he got over-excited and thrashed at the ball rather than placing it, sending it fizzing wide. Had that gone in I reckon we might have been hanging on for dear life, much like we had to do twice last season after Chelsea pulled back a goal deficit. But it didn’t, and from the subsequent corner we should have sealed the victory. Rosicky and Flamini harried and hustled Joe Cole into a mistake and then the Little Mozart sent Ade scampering away down the line. The Togonator managed to pick the right pass to Hleb on the overlap on the far side, and the Belarusian had the presence of mind (or is it a lack of confidence?) to square the ball to Robin. With the goal at his mercy he lashed it over the bar with his right foot though, for a player of his quality that was an eminently presentable chance, weak foot or not. The slender one-goal advantage remained, ensuing that the agony would continue for the final ten minutes.
Chelsea made a decent fist of trying to grab an equaliser but were always liable to be caught on the break. One such occasion occurred when a clearance to Ade wasn’t dealt with by Ben Haim. Ade shipped the ball on to Rosicky who then squared it to Robin unmarked in the box. This time he finished with aplomb on his weaker foot, but alas play had already been stopped as Rosicky was offside when receiving the initial pass from Ade. If only Robin could have provided that kind of finish for his earlier chance, eh? Nor was that the only goal we had disallowed at the death as Ade went through and coolly slotted past Cech but had apparently fouled Ben Haim to win the ball earlier. In between these two disallowed goals Cech redeemed himself with an astonishing double save from point-blank range, first from Robin and then the rebound from Cesc. As Andy Gray remarked at the time, any other team would try and kill the game off by taking the ball to the corner, but not this Arsenal side. For a neutral it is enthralling, but for us Gooners it is simply nerve-wracking.
With the failure to convert the chances we still weren’t home and dry and Chelski could have equalised with a minute of normal time left. Joe Cole found Shevchenko in the box but his downward header was lacking in sufficient power to take it past Almunia. Had that been Didier Drogba it might have been a different story…
It was again Shevchenko who had the Chavs’ effort of the game as Gilberto clumsily gave away a free-kick in dangerous territory. His shot was powerful but straight and Almunia tipped it over the bar. With a whopping five minutes of injury time we astonishingly went straight back down the other end to grab a second. Substitute Nicky B cut inside from the left and spurned the shooting opportunity, instead squaring to the late-arriving Cesc. The young Spaniard’s first touch left Cech on his Arse but as he prodded it goalwards with the keeper prostrate, Cashley got in the way of the effort as he so often did for us. As he cleared it to safety Cesc clattered into him from behind and Cashley retaliated with a bitch-slap. Cashley then went back down to ground like the pu$$y that he is in order to get some sympathy from the ref, but all he got was the final whistle to condemn his ‘beloved’ Chelsea to defeat. What a way to end the game with that jackass writhing around on the floor, beautiful stuff. Cesc got booked for his lunge and upon watching the replay I have to see that he was lucky not to see red, such was the beauty…I mean, recklessness of his lunge. He didn’t give two hoots though and was jumping up and down for joy like a kid at Christmas, that was his first victory against the Blues and how he savoured it. I love Cesc (I think I’ve already said that once in this piece!)
So in the end a vital victory against a direct rival for the title, especially as questions were being asked following the recent blip we’d had. It wasn’t pretty at times and we could have stretched our lead, but at the end of the day a win is a win. To be fair we did ride our luck a bit as SWP and Shevchenko wasted good opportunities to level, but the defence – marshalled superbly by matchwinner Willy Gallas – stood firm. Luck was also in our favour in terms of team selection – the Chavs were missing two of their top players while we were able to welcome two of our own in Cesc and Alex.
As for Top Gun, I have to agree with Jamie Redknapp and Ruud Gullit in their choosing of Gael Clichy. In a match with no obvious glittering individual attacking display, Gael gets the nod for the way he attacked and defended, dribbling with real purpose in the Chelsea half and flinging himself in defence to avoid conceding at all costs. And it also proves how much we have moved on from his opposite number, one Cashley Hole. I can honestly say that I would rather have Clichy over Cashley any day of the week, and of course I am biased, but I reckon most impartial observers would agree. Special mention also to Willy, whose goalscoring record is rivalling that of John Terry’s and Nemanja Vidic – both of whose goals have contributed vitally to their respective teams winning the league in recent seasons. Maybe, just maybe, Gallas’ feats can repeat the trick for us this season? Here’s hoping…