By Richard Clarke
Robin van Persie fired Arsenal back into the title race with two goals in three second-half minutes at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
The Dutchman thumped a shot high into the Chelsea net after 60 minutes and then, soon afterwards, beat Petr Cech with a low shot on the turn.
The brace cancelled out Johan Djourou’s own goal in the first half and all but obliterated the gloomy predictions surrounding Arsenal going into this game.
Having lost their last two Premier League matches, Wenger’s side would have been 13 points off the pace had they lost here today and their season’s obituaries would have been penned.
As it is, Arsenal will still be 10 adrift of Liverpool if Rafa Benitez’ side win on Monday. However they have now beaten two of their main three title rivals.
Wenger’s side remain capable of brilliance yet are frustratingly inconsistent, however, they proved once again this afternoon that they have character in abundance.
And that, more than anything, should mean they will be real challengers this year.
Wenger had been without nine players for their last two games. Thankfully three experienced heads - Bacary Sagna, Emmanuel Adebayor and Samir Nasri - returned this afternoon against the Premier League leaders. From the side that had beaten Kyiv on Tuesday, Mikael Silvestre, Aaron Ramsey and Carlos Vela all dropped to the bench while Djourou moved from right back into central defence.
In midfield, Alex Song partnered Cesc Fabregas, who was making his 150th Premier League appearance. Denilson began on the right, Nasri on the left.
Arsenal’s last win at Stamford Bridge had come on February 21, 2004. Until a month ago it had been the last away victory on this ground in the Premier League.
Wenger’s men badly needed a repeat today. Successive defeats had suggested Arsenal might play little part in the title shake-up. It was hard to contemplate, given we were not yet in December.
The opening salvos belonged to Chelsea. Fabregas made a crucial block on Nicolas Anelka and Salomon Kalou went clear onto Deco’s pass only to be flagged offside. Replays proved the assistant referee had been wrong.
Without a goal in 222 Premier League minutes before kick-off, Arsenal’s confidence still seemed to be a little shaky, however they gradually got to the pace in this frenetic derby.
And, in the 14th minute, they would create the clearest chance in the first quarter of the game.
Adebayor had time and space on the right to place his cross to the far post. He found Fabregas, whose shot was kicked away by Petr Cech. As the ball flew out of the area, Gallas narrowly missed the opportunity to turn the ball home.
Fabregas would test the Chelsea keeper again almost immediately but, overall, the visitors’ flurry would be brief.
Almunia had to kick clear as Kalou sprinted through. Then, in the 24th minute, Bosingwa sent over a sharp cross to the near post and Lampard’s bullet header was gratefully clutched by the keeper.
Chelsea were starting to turn the screw. However their opening goal would be more down to Arsenal than the home side.
In fairness, its origins were unlucky. On the half-hour Gallas was harshly adjudged to have fouled Kalou inside the D. Michael Ballack took the free-kick and saw his effort deflected wide for a corner.
Almunia confidently caught Lampard’s effort at the far post but his quick throw towards Nasri on the left was misdirected. Chelsea collected the ball easily and, eventually, Bosingwa sent over a low ball towards the near post that the sliding Djourou turned it into his own net.
Only a superb challenge stopped Anelka from doubling Chelsea’s advantage straight afterwards as Arsenal began to wobble.
In fairness Van Persie forced a fine low save from Cech soon afterwards and then Fabregas fired in another effort from distance. However, Chelsea seemed to be playing with something to spare.
Anelka nearly extended their lead twice in the dying minutes of the half. First when he steered a stumbling header wide then, after Clichy’s error, the striker went clear only to make a hash of his effort.
The start of the second half saw Chelsea nearly extend their lead. In the 51 minute, Kalou tried to feed Anelka but the backtracking Clichy could only tee the ball up for Lampard who swept the ball wide from the edge of the area.
Arsenal needed something inspirational – a piece of skill, a piece of luck, an injustice - anything to lift their game.
And, right on cue, they got it.
On 58 minutes, Chelsea failed to clear their lines and Denilson tapped a pass forward to Van Persie on the edge of the area. The Dutchman looked to be offside – a replay proved he was – but that did not prevent him slamming the ball high in the net.
It was a lifeline and Arsenal grabbed it with both hands and hauled themselves back into the game.
Three minutes after the first goal, Arsenal got a second. Song was fouled by Kalou on the left and Fabregas floated the ball into the area. Adebayor headed it down and Van Persie, running away from goal, reversed a shot through a thicket of legs, beyond Cech’s left hand and into the corner of the net.
An unbelievable comeback that had arrived just when Chelsea seemed set to hammer home their advantage.
Van Persie even attempted to complete a 10-minute hat-trick but his free-kick flew high over the bar.
However, Scolari’s side were far from spent. They would launch an assault on the Arsenal goal in the latter stages.
But it would be based around possession and pot-shots. Almunia was barely troubled and, indeed, Denilson nearly added a third at the death on the break
After the whistle the Arsenal players threw their shirts into the crowd. It was an emotional moment after an emotional game.
They knew what they had done might just change their season.
- van Persie Goal! Goal!
- Adebayor 83
- Bendtner 83
- Terry Yellow Card
- Ivanovic Yellow Card
- Mikel 70
- Deco 81
- Stoch 81
- Malouda 70