Monday 11 December 2017

Same old story as frail Arsenal usher Chelsea towards the title

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1

Marcos Alonso outjumps Hector Bellerin to head Chelsea into the lead against Arsenal in the Premier League leaders’ 3-1 victory at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Marcos Alonso outjumps Hector Bellerin to head Chelsea into the lead against Arsenal in the Premier League leaders’ 3-1 victory at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

Chelsea continue to streak away with the title, precisely because this fixture continued the trend of the majority of its meetings over the past half-decade.

Arsenal of course lost, but there was still just enough controversy about one of the key moments to argue about that, rather than looking to why this pattern keeps repeating. A Chelsea team so clearly out for revenge for September's 3-0 defeat at the Emirates didn't even need to be that good to win 3-1 here, even if Eden Hazard's 53rd-minute points-sealing goal was brilliant. That decisive moment also defined the game: Chelsea showed their talent, but they were greatly aided by galling Arsenal meekness. The pathetic attempts at challenges by Francis Coquelin and Laurent Koscielny were as frustrating as Theo Walcott's dereliction of duty for the first goal.

It was that 13th-minute strike that set the tone for the match, and was admittedly surrounded in controversy and debate. After Victor Moses so easily got clear of Walcott to cross for Diego Costa to hit the bar, Marcos Alonso jumped forcefully and aggressively to beat Hector Bellerin to the ball and head home. The wing-back's elbow also made clear contact with the Arsenal player's head, to the extent that Bellerin had to go off injured. Had the goal been disallowed and Alonso booked, it would have been understandable. Given that it took replays and slow-motion to properly spot that, and that there was still room for argument, it was equally understandable that an unsighted Martin Atkinson did not disallow it.

Debate on that will rage in a predictably dull manner, despite the unfair reality that referees do not have the benefit of the same technology as everyone watching on. It will happen.

What should happen, however, and what should be the real debate, should be over Arsenal's response. That should be the deep frustration about this game, not least for the fact that it happens so often, and has done for so many seasons.

Even if - rightly or wrongly - they were aggrieved about Alonso's goal, they should have used such a sense of injustice to fire their reaction, to respond with the aggression required to get back at Chelsea and beat them.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte and Cesar Azpilicueta celebrate after the game. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte and Cesar Azpilicueta celebrate after the game. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters

It recalls Jock Stein's famous team talk at half-time of the 1967 European Cup final, when his Celtic players were complaining about the early penalty that had given Internazionale the lead.

"If you have a grievance about the referee, there is only one bunch of people who can do anything about it: you. Go out and right it yourselves." Celtic did so, winning that match 2-1. Arsenal did the opposite. They collapsed, pathetically.

The frustration for Arsenal should be that Antonio Conte's side did look there for the taking and a touch too complacent after going a goal ahead. With Arsene Wenger - in the stand due to his touchline ban - forced to change his team due to absences in midfield, his pragmatic 4-3-3 did initially seem to work. Arsenal started well but, when they went behind, finished appallingly when trying to get back into it.

Gabriel should have scored a 38th-minute free header when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain clipped in a nice cross; Mesut Ozil should have shown much more conviction when left free in the box moments later.

Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta (left) and Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez battle for the ball. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire
Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta (left) and Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez battle for the ball. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire

Thibaut Courtois was equal to both and it ensured that, by the end, Arsenal were nowhere equals to Chelsea. They are 12 points worse off, as was made certain when none of their players could get close to Hazard for that second goal.

Running from the halfway line, the playmaker's movement was brilliant, but still didn't seem quite that brilliant to so easily leave Coquelin on the ground and Koscielny turned inside out. They were as irrelevant to that goal as Ozil and Alexis Sanchez were to the game. By that point, bathe odd moment Chelsea were strolling. N'Golo Kante had gone from forcefully clearing up so many Arsenal attacks to now easily surging up the pitch.

Cesc Fabregas then came on to lift the onto another level by taking advantage of a Petr Cech error to lift it over his head. Olivier Giroud did get a consolation, but there were barely even ironic celebrations. There is nothing ironic about Arsenal by now. It's the same story over and over and over again.

By contrast, Chelsea keep beating them, over and over and over again.

When that pattern threatened to change last September, Conte took drastic action, and the effects of it were clearly seen here. Arsenal never take action. That could be seen right through this game, and right through the history of this fixture. Their title challenge is over, and they face a real fight for the top four. Chelsea, just like in this match, are cruising.

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