By Richard Clarke
Arsenal went down 2-0 in disappointing fashion at Chelsea on Sunday.
Didier Drogba swept home a shot just before half time and, in 85th minute, Alex planted a rocket of a free-kick past Lukasz Fabianski from long range.
Those are the bare facts of the game and, ultimately, what matters. But inbetween Arsenal were on top for significant periods this afternoon at Stamford Bridge.
Marouane Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny might have scored in the opening seconds and the visitors chased the game in admirable fashion at the start of the second half.
Ultimately they were undone by Drogba’s deadly nature and a wonder strike. It was difficult to take given the shift they put in this afternoon.Arsenal drop to fourth place in the table as a result of a game that had been built up as an indicator of their title ambitions.
However, on the strength of this afternoon, they will still be involved in the shake up.
Wenger’s team was pretty much chosen for him this afternoon. With Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Manuel Almunia (elbow), Robin van Persie (ankle), Nicklas Bendtner (groin) and Theo Walcott (ankle) all out, the manager only had a couple of decisions to make.
Perhaps with this game in mind, he had shuffled his side against West Brom and Partizan Belgrade in the past week with only partial success.
But there was nothing held back this afternoon.
Compared to the game in Serbia, Wenger brought back Abou Diaby for Denilson, Gael Clichy for Kieran Gibbs and Laurent Koscielny for Johan Djourou.
The manager had been in ebullient form at his pre-match press conference. Injuries, shminjuiries. He thought his side could and would win this game.
In the first two minutes, they nearly did.
Straight from the kick-off, Bacary Sagna curled a cross into the centre and the diving Chamakh steered a header just inches wide of the far post. The ball must have flicked off his marker en route because referee Mike Dean indicated a corner. Nasri took it, Sebastien Squillaci nodded on and the unmarked Koscielny headed over at the far post.
The game was barely 100 seconds yet Arsenal might have scored twice.
Chelsea responded with urgency. Drogba’s shot was blocked by Song and then the striker fired over from a free-kick. In the sixth minute, Florant Malouda captialised on Squillaci’s error and drifted an effort just over the bar.
The game had started like the last five minutes of an FA Cup tie not the first major meeting of this year’s title contenders.
In the eighth minute, Arshavin cut inside and fired powerfully at Petr Cech. The Chelsea keeper beat the ball away superbly.
After that, the game drew breath as Chelsea gradually gathered themselves. Malouda had a shot blocked at the far post and an unmarked Michael Essien powered a header wide from eight yards when he should have hit the target.
As the half-hour approached, the game had evened out and the sides started to swap chances.
In the 32nd minute, Nasri weaved through and planted a left-foot shot just beyond the far post. Three minutes later, Drogba burst through but Fabianski parried away his shot at the near post.
By now, there was an ominous look about Chelsea. For the first half-hour Arsenal had created but not scored. If and when the home side carved out similar opportunities would they fail to convert?
The answer came six minutes before the break.
Ramires sent Cole free on the left. He scuttled to the byline and sent in a low cross to Drogba at the near post. The ball was just behind the striker but he swept a shot goalwards with his trailing leg. The ball hit inside the post and nestled into the far side of the net.
It was a familiar feeling for the vocal visiting fans. This was Drogba’s 13th goal in his last 11 League and Cup starts against Arsenal.
After a very decent first-half display, the visiting players looked a little crest-fallen as they went into the tunnel at the break.
But they shrugged it off in the opening 15 minutes of the second half. Arsenal peppered the Chelsea area with crosses and, gradually, they began to lead to chances.
Chamakh nudged a header wide then, in the 56th minute, Diaby’s shot bounced over Cech but bobbled wide.
Arshavin reached the left-hand byline and his low cross eluded Wilshere in the middle to find Chamakh just inside the area. The Moroccan weaved inside Ramires and was brought down. A certain penalty was only prevented by the fact the Brazilian clipped the ball in the act of sweeping away the legs of the Arsenal striker.
The visitors were on top but then that is when Chelsea tend to score. And, sure enough, they nearly did.
Arsenal had their own penalty scare when Koscielny won the ball through the legs of Drogba.
Then, on the hour, Anelka caught Squillaci in possession and went one-on-one with Fabianski. The Chelsea striker was completely clear and the Arsenal keeper did well to usher him wide.
The Frenchman skipped past and planted a first-time shot into the sidenetting when he had time to control the ball and pick his spot.
Chelsea had the ball in the net after 69 minutes but Ashley Cole was flagged offside before he fired home his cross-shot.
But the tide was still with Arsenal. Wenger brought on Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and put him alongside Chamakh. The visitors kept throwing in crosses but they were now becoming more desperate. Chelsea were looking lethal on the break and, despite everything, Arsenal had still not really tested Cech.
With five minutes left, the home side killed the game. Koscielny hauled down Anelka as he went through and, for once, Drogba left free-kick duties to Alex. From 25 yards, the Brazilian stepped up and sent a howitzer of a shot beyond Fabianski and into top corner.
The keeper made a fine stop from Essien few seconds later as Arsenal struggled to recover. And then another from Cole in the final minute.
Chelsea ended on top and had taken the points but that was not the full story this afternoon.
Referee: Mike Dean
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