Chelsea Survive Arsenal's 2nd-Half Coming to Bring Much-Needed Home Cheer
For 45 minutes at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea cut through Arsenal like the biting cold. Rafa Benitez's team were superior in every department and so dominant that Gunners fans must have feared an avalanche in the January snow.
Arsenal were passengers in a game they had no control over. In midfield they were overrun by the trio of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard—the Matazar combination freed to attack at will by the industry of Frank Lampard and Ramires behind them.
Jack Wilshere's influence was minimal. Abou Diaby's presence barely noted. It was all Chelsea, and Arsenal seemed helpless to stem the blue tide. The pitch was thawed by undersoil heating, but Arsene Wenger's men were frozen upon it.
That said, the Gunners still could have led after five minutes, when Olivier Giroud shot wide from a good position. A matter of seconds later, Mata duly put that miss in perspective with a fierce shot into the top corner to put Chelsea ahead—Arsenal's profligacy punished in the harshest way possible.
Cesar Azpiliceuta's ball to Mata was well flighted, and Mata's finish accomplished, but Arsenal will rightly complain of a foul from Ramires on Francis Coquelin in the buildup.
Chelsea's second goal also came with controversy. Ramires appeared to slide into Wojciech Szczesny, rather than the other way around, but referee Martin Atkison pointed to the penalty spot, and Lampard did what he nearly always does—scoring with ease to double his team's lead.
The 16th minute is when Chelsea fans usually chant for their former manager Roberto Di Matteo (he wore the No. 16 shirt for them as a player), so Lampard's goal was particularly timely for Benitez. His team were overwhelming Arsenal, and the home crowd could barely have wished for a better start.
That was the theme of things until the interval. Arsenal went in 2-0 down and fortunate to still be within reach. Chelsea's capitulation to Southampton in midweek at least gave them hope that there was a way back into game, but Wenger would need to instill some fire into his troops to make that anything more than the remotest of possibilities.
Whatever the Frenchman said at halftime, it worked. Arsenal came out like a completely different team, with a completely different mindset. Wilshere and Diaby began to impose themselves in midfield, and soon enough Per Mertesacker saw a shot saved by Petr Cech.
On 58 minutes, Theo Walcott pulled a goal back. Santi Cazorla's sumptuous pass played him in, and Walcott found the corner to score his 11th goal in 15 games. Arsenal had finally come to the party, and a comeback suddenly looked eminently possible.
Chelsea were now on the back foot. Mata, Hazard and Oscar had to swap attacking duties for defensive ones, while Lampard and Ramires—in deep central midfield—were finally being asked to the job they were stationed for.
The remaining 30 minutes were a mirror image of what we'd seen in the first half. Arsenal pressed forward, while Chelsea relied on counterattacks to threaten a third goal that would wrap up the points. Fernando Torres missed a glorious chance after his pace sent him through, but it was Arsenal who were now the dominant side.
The visitors pushed hard for an equalizer, but it never arrived. Chelsea held firm and took a 2-1 victory their first-half superiority just about deserved, bringing Benitez some much-needed home cheer and keeping the Blues in control of third place. Any confidence coming out of the game will be tempered by the way they faded after the first half, however.
Arsenal were left to wonder what could have been. Their impressive second-half showing emphasised just how poor they'd been in the first and begged the question of what it takes to galvanise these players.
Both sides showed their strengths and weaknesses. Will the real Chelsea and Arsenal please stand up?
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