By Richard Clarke
Arsenal WILL fight for the Premier League title this season.
That was the resounding message Arsène Wenger’s team sent out with a heartening 3-1 win over Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on Monday night.
The three points restores them to second place behind Manchester United – but this victory was worth much more than that.
Having lost at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, the critics suggested Arsenal’s campaign would be undermined by familiar weaknesses. One of which was a failure to beat their main title rivals.
However, make no mistake, this evening they fully deserved to beat the reigning champions.
Alex Song bundled through to blast home the opener on the stroke of half time. Then, just after the restart, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott set up goals for one another inside three mad minutes.
Branislav Ivanovic nodded Chelsea back in touch just before the hour and then Carlo Ancelotti’s side kicked on in search of something more.
But this evening, the likes of Song, Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou put in performances of controlled muscularity. Lukasz Fabianski was barely tested in the final half-hour.
This result does not answer all the questions about Arsenal this season. But the trip to Wigan is the midway point of the Premier League campaign and should Wenger’s men win there they will be, at the very least, within a victory of top spot.
No-one knows if Arsenal will win the title but they have put themselves in position to have a chance.
It had been a full fortnight since that disappointing 1-0 defeat at Manchester United and this game had been built up as another season-shaper.
Wenger made five changes, including a couple of surprises. Djourou came in for his first Premier League start since the 2-1 win at Everton on November 14. Sebastien Squillaci dropped the bench. He was joined there by Marouane Chamakh, who was replaced by Robin van Persie. The Dutchman was starting his first Premier League game in four months.
Elsewhere, Fabianski was back in goal after a hip injury. Fabregas and Walcott were on from the beginning having been on the bench at Manchester United.
Perhaps it was the fact that the rest of the Premier League had played a day earlier, perhaps it was Manchester United’s upturn in form, but this game felt simply massive.
Both sides had something to prove. Arsenal needed to show they could beat a recent title-winner (and ended a run of five-straight defeats against the Stamford Bridge side). Chelsea needed to show they were over a damaging dip in form.
It was night when the result was all-important. The performance was secondary.
But then the opening 15 minutes were too frenetic for decent football anyway.
Chelsea fashioned the best chance – when Koscielny gave the ball away in midfield and Drogba drove wide – but Arsenal were always looking to play on the front foot.
And, just before the Ivorian’s effort, Song chipped the ball to the far post but Van Persie miscued his volley from close range with Ivanovic in close attendance.
It was a speedy, spicy affair – everything you’d expect from two London rivals fighting for the title.
Van Persie had a strong shout for a penalty when Florent Malouda buffeted him off the ball on the edge of the area. A couple of minutes later, Nasri’s fierce free-kick was plucked out of the air by Petr Cech.
As the half went on, Arsenal started to exert some sustained pressure. Fabregas tried to dance through the middle, Van Persie blasted over from an acute angle, Walcott waltzed himself some space on the byline and Bacary Sagna’s rocket shot hit Drogba.
It was worthwhile football from Arsenal but Chelsea’s defence was at its rigid best. The only time Cech was extended was when he tipped over from Nasri’s delicious chip.
Still, Arsenal had done enough to deserve their lead when it came a minute before the half-time whistle.
Song exchanged passes with Wilshere on the edge of the box and darted into the area to get the return. He eventually received it and clipped the ball home. The slight delay came because Paulo Ferreira brought down Fabregas as he tried to intercept.
Had the Cameroonian not scored surely Arsenal would have won a penalty.
Malouda’s late effort was cleared off the line as Chelsea tried to regain parity immediately. But it was too little too late from the visitors in the first half.
Arsenal had been the better side in the opening period and, in the first seven minutes of the second, they would seize control by scoring twice.
Walcott and Fabregas set up the strikes for the other but, in reality, the Chelsea midfield was at fault each time.
In the 50th minute, Michael Essien was worried into a loose back-pass by Van Persie. Walcott raced clear, drew Cech and tapped a square pass for Fabregas to slot home.
Three minutes later, Walcott stole the ball off Malouda’s toe and found Fabregas in midfield. The England winger went sprinting clear, collected the Spaniard's pass and fired into the far corner. It was his ninth goal of the season in only his eighth start.
Emirates was riotous. The home crowd felt a weight lifting off their shoulders as, finally, Arsenal’s title colours could be firmly nailed to the mast.
But, football is never so simple. Four minutes later, Fabregas fouled Essien on the left and Drogba’s free-kick was guided past Fabianski by the head of Ivanovic.
The goal changed the game in an instant.
Suddenly Chelsea were the aggressor. Arsenal had thrown away a two-goal lead against Tottenham just over a month before. Surely they could not go one better against the West London side?
Ancelotti’s men were going for it and they pressed back Arsenal. But that did mean Walcott’s pace was now a massive factor when the home side broke out.
Midway through the half, Song found the Englishman in space and his raking cross-field pass reached Nasri on the left of the area. The Frenchman tried to nudge the ball past Cech but the keeper thrust out his hand.
Wenger brought on Abou Diaby and Chamakh for Van Persie and Walcott. There was a sense the manager was trying to ‘see out’ the game. But, in fact, Diaby might have won it.
Ten minutes from time, he found a glimpse of space in the area but dallied too long and his chance was lost.
Chelsea’s expected onslaught did not really arrive late on. Yes, Salomon Kalou bundled the ball home in tine final minute but he was clearly offside and Tomas Rosicky hit the past with the last action of the game. He too had been flagged.
It did not matter. Arsenal had what they wanted - three points and the opportunity to call themselves title-contenders.
Their fate is now firmly in their own hands.
- Fabregas (C) 88 Goal! Yellow Card
- Song Goal!
- Persie 76 Yellow Card
- Walcott 73 Goal!
- Rosicky 88
- Diaby 73
- Chamakh 76
- Terry (C)
- Ivanovic Goal!
- Cole Yellow Card
- Ferreira 62
- Mikel 45
- Lampard Yellow Card
- Kalou Yellow Card
- Malouda 56
- Ramires 45
- Bosingwa 62
- Kakuta 56