Saturday 16 February 2019

Arsenal leave Chelsea looking over shoulder

Arsenal 2 Chelsea 0

Arsenal's Alexandre Lacazette scores his side's first goal. Photo: Reuters.
Arsenal's Alexandre Lacazette scores his side's first goal. Photo: Reuters.

Dominic Fifield

This was a result celebrated with gusto by Arsenal, but presumably cherished just as much from afar by an ominously resurgent Manchester United.

The pursuit of the Champions League qualification places is gathering pace, and with the advantage over their nearest rivals in fifth and sixth now trimmed to a delicate three points, Chelsea suddenly feel as if they are treading water. Their latest stodgy and scoreless display had been punished. Gonzalo Higuaín cannot arrive soon enough.

Arsenal's Sead Kolasinac in action with Chelsea's David Luiz. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Sead Kolasinac in action with Chelsea's David Luiz. Photo: Reuters

If it was Arsenal's incision, swarming forward at pace to punch holes in their opponents' backline through a one-sided first half, which effectively secured the hosts this morale-boosting victory after a difficult week on and off the pitch, then it was Chelsea's lack of bite which ensured there would be no comeback.

Maurizio Sarri's team, who struck the woodwork for a 16th time this term, did not muster a single shot on target and have not worked a goalkeeper in 113 minutes of top-flight football.

Higuaín's loan move, when eventually confirmed from Juventus via Milan, should help, but sometimes it is hard to muster discernible progress in their approach.

Their record is identical now to the same stage last season, when Antonio Conte's tenure appeared to be unravelling. And now, troublingly, the chasing pack have real hope.

Arsenal's Sead Kolasinac battles for the ball with Chelsea's Pedro. Photo: Getty Images
Arsenal's Sead Kolasinac battles for the ball with Chelsea's Pedro. Photo: Getty Images

Arsenal's predicament, having been overhauled by United's victory earlier in the afternoon, had felt the more precarious prior to kick-off, though at least they channelled any anxiety into a blistering first-half attacking display. Their furious opening might have blown Chelsea away.

There was too much snap to their approach, too much energy rippling through a diamond midfield, tipped by Aaron Ramsey, and aggressive frontline. It all left the visitors winded as their attempts to ease themselves gently into the contest were utterly wrecked.

The hosts had opportunities to score three times before, as the quarter-hour mark approached, Alexandre Lacazette collected Héctor Bellerín's centre sumptuously on his instep amid a clutter of opponents' bodies. The Frenchman, initially with his back to goal, twisted smartly away from Pedro Rodríguez and beyond Marcos Alonso's half-hearted attempt to block.

With the angle suddenly horribly tight, he spat away a shot which ripped high inside Kepa Arrizabalaga's near-post with the goalkeeper pawing at fresh air.

It was an emphatic finish to set the tone, compensating for earlier misses by Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as Laurent Koscielny's inability to guide a free header beyond Kepa from Lucas Torreira's fine free-kick.

His attempt had struck the goalkeeper, with Aubameyang doing likewise after capitalising on César Azpilicueta's sloppiness in possession to burst free moments after Arsenal's lead had been established. Every attack the home side mustered had threatened to rip apart an uncharacteristically fragile Chelsea team.

Had Arsenal's lead been slender at the interval then Unai Emery might have grumbled his way back to the dressing room in frustration. Instead, Papastathopoulos's optimistic shot six minutes from the interval turned into an astute cross with Koscielny, free again as he stooped on the edge of the six-yard box, looping in his side's second goal - improbably off his right shoulder with Kepa static and exposed.

All semblance of defensive discipline appeared to have drained from those in front of him, a frazzled David Luiz's wild challenge on Ramsey in the build-up to that second goal rather summing up a collective lack of composure.

A team again employing Eden Hazard as an uncomfortable No 9 had flirted with an equaliser back when the deficit stood at only one, Pedro lobbing over Bernd Leno but marginally wide of the far post having been liberated by a glorious Luiz pass from deep.

The Brazilian had arguably been the visitors' most incisive creative force, pushing up into midfield when he could to influence the play with those trademark arced passes. He had been in the penalty area as Alonso leapt to meet Willian's corner in first-half stoppage time, with the full-back's attempt bouncing back off the woodwork.

The memory of that near-miss propelled Sarri's team on upon the restart but, with their front-line lacking a focal point to unsettle Papastathopoulos and Koscielny, until the belated introduction of Olivier Giroud, the threat was rather fitful.

Indeed, Arsenal were more unsettled by the loss of Bellerín to what appeared a serious knee injury, the full-back twisting his left leg awkwardly as he ran at pace.

He would depart on a stretcher, with Hazard and Alonso immediately sensing opportunity up against the youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles on that flank.

Yet Pedro skied high and wide, Leno beat away a succession of fizzed low centres, and Giroud air-kicked from a presentable position in front of goal. With finishing this slack, the home side were never likely to be wounded.

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