By Richard Clarke
Having won at Premiership leaders Manchester United in September, Arsenal came within six minutes of pulling off a similar smash-and-grab against second-place Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
In driving rain, Arsène Wenger's injury-hit side had to soak up considerable second half pressure from the home team. However, in the 79th minute, Mathieu Flamini crashed home an unlikely goal past Hilario.
It seemed Arsenal were going to become the first team to inflict a home defeat on Jose Mourinho's Chelsea in the Premiership.
However Michael Essien fired home a wonderful 25-yard, curling drive in the 84th minute. Deep into injury the Ghanaian nearly won the game when his effort came back off the bar. Then with the final kick of the game, Frank Lampard hit the post after Jens Lehmann had spilt the ball.
Certainly the home side enjoyed the best chances and will count themselves highly unlucky not to take all three points. However, at the same time, it would have been harsh on this young Arsenal side to have left empty-handed. They were organised, committed and resilient.
Again Arsenal have proved they can perform in the big games. More consistency against the so-called lesser lights will see them advance back into the Champions League places. This point leaves them in sixth.
Wenger made two changes from the side that had picked up group-clinching point at Porto. Robin van Persie replaced Freddie Ljungberg and Philippe Senderos came in for the suspended Kolo Toure.
The Swiss defender was paired with compatriot Johan Djourou at centre back. With Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Eboue operating at full back, the average age of the Arsenal defence was 22. Surely one of the youngest quartets Wenger had ever fielded in a game of this magnitude.
Stamford Bridge was packed out and expectant at kick-off.
Results on Saturday had pushed Arsenal down to seventh in table, an ominous 19 points behind leaders Manchester United. Even Chelsea were nine points adrift of Sir Alex Ferguson's side albeit, like their opponents this afternoon, they had two games in hand.
Then there was the appearance of Ashley Cole against the side he had represented over 200 times.
The first half took time to get going and, in truth, barely got above 'simmer' level. In the ninth minute, Van Persie sent a free-kick into the wall and, soon afterwards, Hleb's quick feet sent Adebayor clear on the left. Fabregas sprinted into the area but just failed to control a swift, low cross from the Togolese striker.
Up to this point Chelsea had barely stirred. However in the 17th minute Michael Ballack whistled a long-range cross-shot inches wide then, from Geremi's throw-in, Didier Drogba's nod on found Lampard on the edge of the area. The England midfielder's left-foot snapshot rebounded back off the post with Lehmann left motionless on the edge of his six-yard box.
Van Persie trickled a shot wide from distance. Then, just past the half hour, Geremi found some room on the right and sent a low cross into the area. Senderos did enough to prevent Drogba turning the ball in at the near post but it sat up nicely for Michael Essien. The Ghanaian slashed the ball over from 10 yards. You sensed he would have been more accurate had Gilberto not slid in to challenge at the crucial moment.
Arsenal were still attacking with inventiveness. Eboue sent a few dangerous crosses into the area and Flamini nodded over from Van Persie's cross. But, just before the break, Chelsea had a clear chance to take the lead. Lehmann failed to gather Lampard's corner and Essien's low shot would have found the corner had Fabregas not booted the ball off line.
Arsenal had a couple of chances at the start of the second half. Adebayor fired wide and Van Persie powered a header over the bar. In response, Drogba slid a header wide from Lampard's deep free-kick.
Chelsea were starting to put more pressure on Arsenal however they were not creating real chances. Lampard's hammered a free-kick well wide then, at the other end, Adebayor drove forward and cut the ball back for Fabregas to fire a long-range shot in to the chest of Hilario.
Referee Alan Wiley turned away Drogba's appeals for a penalty and, after a minor melee, the Ivorian striker and Jens Lehmann were booked after having small shoving match over the decision.
Just after that, Mourinho threw on Shaun Wright-Phillips and Arjen Robben for Andrei Shevchenko and Geremi. The Chelsea manager was going for the win.
In the 70th minute Senderos needlessly gave the ball to Robben on the left. He burst past Djourou and unleashed a shot goalwards. Lehmann half-saved it but the ball bounced dangerously into the six-yard area. Crucially, Gilberto toe-poked the ball away from Drogba as he seemed set to score. Somehow Arsenal smuggled the ball clear.
Chelsea now had control with Robben taking advantage of the tiring Eboue. He flashed one shot wide and then decided to go for goal again when perhaps he should have looked to the waiting Drogba the far post.
Fabregas sent a free-kick bobbling wide but, in truth, Chelsea were cranking up the pressure.
That is why Flamini's goal was such a surprise. The Frenchman controlled the ball on the edge of the area and spread the ball out to Hleb on the right. He held the ball and then returned the favour to the Frenchman on the edge of the area. Flamini whipped home a right-foot shot past Hilario. The Chelsea keeper got a hand to the ball but could not prevent it going in.
Drogba flicked a shot past Lehmann a few minutes later. Fortunately for Arsenal it also went past the post. In the 83rd minute the Ivorian climbed high to send a powerful header just over the bar.
Chelsea were starting to flag when Essien sent a thunderbolt past Lehmann and into the Arsenal net.
However the visitors might yet have won the game had Hleb kept his head when the ball arrived at his feet when he was unmarked at the far post. Unfortunately he blazed his shot horribly high over the Chelsea bar.
Essien and Lampard both found the woodwork in the frantic final few minutes. But Arsenal had held on.
- Lehmann Yellow Card
- Flamini Goal! Yellow Card
- Persie 84
- Ljungberg 84
- Cole Yellow Card
- Njitap 66
- Essien Goal!
- Drogba Yellow Card
- Shevchenko 66
- Wright-Phillips 66
- Robben 66