Monday 17 December 2018

Depleted Gunners show steel over style

Chelsea 0 Arsenal 0

Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles flies through the air after a collision with Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles flies through the air after a collision with Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta. Photo: Reuters

Jason Burt

Alexis Sanchez out of the starting XI, Arsene Wenger out of the dug-out, Jack Wilshere out injured but Arsenal are still in this Carabao Cup semi-final tie after holding Chelsea to an improbable goalless draw.

It is all to play for with the second leg to come in a fortnight's time although whether Sanchez - who came on as second-half substitute - will feature would appear unlikely with his move to Manchester City seeming imminent.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Reuters

This was the first League Cup tie in which the Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) system was used and despite its keen competitive edge, despite penalty appeals from both sides there were no moments of controversy.

Chelsea will feel they created enough opportunities to have won, maybe even to have put this tie to bed, but, frustratingly, it is three draws in a row for them now in all competitions.


Arsenal certainly showed courage under pressure, depleted as they were, wounded as they are after their FA Cup exit last weekend and with Wilshere going off injured. It is on a knife-edge.

Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez battle for the ball. Photo: PA
Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez battle for the ball. Photo: PA

"You cannot explain every single decision, that is the decision of today," Wenger said of naming Sanchez among the substitutes for such a vital fixture in which he was expected to start. So that was pretty clear. He is primed to leave.

That was not the only Arsenal plot line - no Mesut Ozil, out injured, Wilshere named captain, Alex Iwobi in the team despite the claims of late-night partying and Wenger sitting in the press box, of all places, for the second game of his three-match ban for criticising a referee.

It provided easy access to the tunnel, to the dressing rooms but it was nevertheless unusual as he perched among us with assistant Jens Lehmann.

They will have tensed a little when Eden Hazard, the most dangerous player on the pitch, was left unmarked to turn and thread a ball through to Alvaro Morata who should have done better than stab it into the side-netting.

Arsenal's Jack Wilshere nurses an injury. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal's Jack Wilshere nurses an injury. Photo: Reuters

Seconds had passed. Chelsea sensed Arsenal's weakness to the most basic tactic: the ball over the top. Time and again they tried to find Morata, Hazard or Marcos Alonso while the visitors only threatened when Wilshere was in possession and attempted to surge forward through the midfield.

And so it was Wilshere who created Arsenal's first opportunity, lifting the ball to French frontman Alexandre Lacazette who instead of controlling it and running at goal elected to slash the ball wildly over the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area. It prompted a response from Chelsea with Victor Moses cutting in from the right and firing in a powerful low shot that goalkeeper David Ospina spilt and then hurriedly collected.

Moses threatened again down the right side, again beating Ainsley Maitland-Niles, with his cross blocked only for him to collect the rebound with his shot cannoning of the near post, Calum Chambers hacking it away before Morata could turn it home. Down the other flank Chelsea's other wing-back, Alonso, slammed in a low cross that just ran behind Morata. The VAR was used. Chambers and Cesar Azpilicueta tangled at an Arsenal corner, with the Chelsea defender pushed over and, after consulting with Neil Swarbrick, referee Martin Atkinson simply warned both players and carried on.

Atkinson was soon touching his ear again as Maitland-Niles went over in the Chelsea area, as he pushed the ball ahead of Moses, after Thibaut Courtois had superbly saved from Iwobi. That came as Antonio Rudiger's woeful attempt to find Cesc Fabregas had been intercepted. There were chants of "VAR" from the Arsenal fans but the penalty appeal was rejected.

Chelsea's N'Golo Kante fends off Arsenal's Danny Welbeck. Photo: PA
Chelsea's N'Golo Kante fends off Arsenal's Danny Welbeck. Photo: PA

Wenger's irritation grew. He beat the desk - as Hazard went down under a challenge, not for the first time - kicked the seat in front of him and rocked in frustration as Shkodran Mustafi was penalised for impeding Morata.

From the free-kick a corner was won and from it Azpilicueta crossed. A free header for Fabregas - but he directed it straight at Ospina. It was not as open, not as thrilling as the 2-2 Premier League draw between these sides at the Emirates seven days ago but the intent was there and Chelsea should have gone in front soon after the restart when Alonso flicked on a cross to Andreas Christensen who headed over, at full stretch, from a couple of yards.

Arsenal were pinned back. They could not get out of their half as Chelsea turned the screw with the ball bouncing off Morata from another corner, then the striker doing far better as he ran at goal and struck a powerful 25-yard shot that Ospina turned away before he hit the side-netting again.

There was a setback for the visitors, with Wilshere departing injured, having damaged himself blocking another shot.

It continued. Mustafi cut out Moses' goal-bound shot for a corner, Christensen headed wastefully wide from it and Hazard elected to pass when he had to shoot. But Arsenal held on. On the touchline, 25 yards in front of Wenger, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte bit his nails and prowled the technical area as Hazard broke free down the left only to be halted by Rob Holding.

Conte ran through his substitutions, as did Wenger, with the head coach demanding a penalty, calling for the VAR, as Fabregas went over under Danny Welbeck's challenge and then the midfielder's cross was inadvertently deflected onto the outside of the post by Chambers for another corner. But the breakthrough would not come.

© Daily Telegraph, London


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