By Richard Clarke
Arsenal now have it all to do in the title race.
Sunday’s 3-0 defeat to Chelsea at Emirates Stadium leaves Arsène Wenger’s side 11 points adrift of the Premier League leaders.
It is still only November of course and Arsenal have a game in hand but they have to claw back ground quickly if they are to stay in touch with top two.
This game was an indication of the task they face. The home side had the majority of possession and were on the foot front for most of the 90 minutes but they were picked off twice just before half-time and then finished off just before full-time. It was a lesson in taking your chances.
The first two goals were provided from the left by Ashley Cole. In the 41st minute, his cross was turned home expertly by Didier Drogba. On the whistle, Thomas Vermaelen miscued an attempted clearance into his own net.
Arsenal tried their best to respond in the second half but any lingering hopes were extinguished four minutes from time when Drogba thumped home a free-kick.
It was a sobering afternoon for Wenger’s side, who now drop to fourth. Key injuries had undoubtedly hampered them but Arsenal’s pursuit of the Premier League crown will now be long and difficult.
At the moment, their hopes of silverware appear to lie elsewhere.
Rain had hammered down in North London all day. It seemed that the Gods were doing their best to dampen the atmosphere for this utterly crucial game.
They need not have bothered.
The feverish press room flurry that met the publication of the team-sheets was as good an indication of this game’s importance as anyone might need. Defeat for either side would peg back their respective title ambitions while a draw would let in Manchester United.
Both managers had key players with injury doubts but, in the end, they all played. The swelling on William Gallas’ eye had gone down sufficiently for him to start. Wenger also recalled Armand Traore at left back – his problem position – and Bacary Sagna on the opposite flank. Eduardo returned to spearhead the attack. As a result, Emmanuel Eboue and Carlos Vela dropped to the bench while the injured Kieran Gibbs was, of course, sidelined.
For their part Chelsea welcomed back Frank Lampard to their midfield following a thigh injury. With Drogba having returned in midweek, the Stamford Bridge outfit were at the peak of their considerable powers.
As Wenger had said in his pre-match press conference, this was the acid test for Arsenal.
The ever-confident Frenchman had also stated that “this was the time” for his side. And in the early stages, they proved him right.
The opening quarter of an hour belonged to Arsenal. Cesc Fabregas had a shot blocked and Eduardo nearly wriggled through the centre of the Chelsea defence only to have the ball pinched from his toes.
Although opportunities were rare, the home side were having all the possession and territory. But, in fact, the visitors would carve out the first real chance of the game – and it had a whiff of controversy.
Nicolas Anelka chased Lampard’s ball down the left-hand channel and went momentarily clear inside the area. Sagna was in close pursuit and the full back’s right arm appeared to knock his compatriot off his stride. The tumbling Anelka slipped over as he miscued his effort at Almunia then Lampard’s follow up went wide. Referee Andre Marriner waved play on and the majority of Emirates Stadium breathed a sigh of relief.
The opportunity seemed to pull Chelsea from their shell. Midway through the first half, Drogba nodded straight at Almunia when he should have done better and five minutes before the break he headed over.
Arsenal still had an ample amount of the ball but they were creating only quarter-chances - little that would trouble Petr Cech.
Chelsea would make them pay.
In the 41st minute, John Terry slipped a pass down the left-hand channel to Ashley Cole. The former Arsenal full back was allowed to put the ball on his favoured left foot and, when he whipped in a low cross, Drogba steered home a shot at the near post. The ball juddered between the angle of post and bar before deciding to go in, nonetheless it was ruthless football.
You could argue that Arsenal did not deserve to be behind. But they definitely did not merit the second goal on the stroke of half-time. Again Ashley Cole was the supplier but this time his low cross hit the knee of Vermaelen and went in the top corner off the woodwork once again.
Arsenal had to find a response and, at the break, Wenger did his best to provide it.
He withdrew Alex Song for Theo Walcott. The Englishman slotted in on the left-hand side pushing Nasri just behind Eduardo.
It made a difference.
Again Arsenal pegged back Chelsea in the early stages. They did get the ball into the net but by the time Arshavin had slammed home the referee has long since blown for a foul by Eduardo on Cech.
It was the Croatian’s last meaningful act. The 26-year-old was replaced by Vela.
By now, Arsenal were pressing and persistent. However they just could not penetrate the meanest defence in the Premier League. In the first half, Chelsea had sat back, soaked up Arsenal’s pressure and then picked their pocket.
They so nearly stole a third goal just before the hour. Drogba tried his luck from the left of the area and the ball hit Gallas then Lampard before trickling to the right of the wrong-footed Almunia. The keeper recovered to make a brilliant save.
In the 66th minute, Wenger threw on Tomas Rosicky, his last substitute, in place of Nasri. Still Arsenal had the play but Chelsea had the chances. Five minutes later, Drogba shrugged off Traore before whipping a cross that was just over Anelka’s head.
As the game neared its conclusion, Arsenal's challenge faded. Drogba had been Arsenal's main agitator this afternoon and, just to prove the point, with four minutes to go Fabregas brought down Michael Essien and the Ivorian rifled the free-kick beyond Almunia.
Having lost their top-scorer to a long-term injury on Saturday, Arsenal lost to one of their biggest title rivals the next day.
It has been a tough, tough weekend at Emirates Stadium.
- Vermaelen Goal!
- Traore Yellow Card
- Nasri 66
- Fabregas (C)
- Song 46
- Eduardo 57
- Rosicky 66
- Walcott 46
- Vela 57
- Cole 72
- Terry (C)
- Cole 67
- Jon Obi Mikel Yellow Card
- Drogba 87 Goal! Goal! Yellow Card
- Ferreira 72
- Yury Zhirkov
- Deco 67
- Malouda 87