By Richard Clarke at Stamford Bridge
Arsenal are back – emphatically, completely, utterly.
Arsène Wenger’s side snatched a stunning 5-3 comeback win at Stamford Bridge on Saturday with Robin van Persie grabbing a sumptuous hat-trick.
Chelsea led at the break as goals from Frank Lampard and John Terry sandwiched a well-made strike by the Dutchman.
However the second half would belong to one man and one team.
Andre Santos and Theo Walcott turned the scoreline around before the hour. After Juan Mata equalised, Van Persie confirmed the points with a breakway goal after Terry slipped five minutes from time
In injury time, the captain completed this huge injection of confidence by thumping a fifth goal past Petr Cech. It was his 28th strike in 27 Premier League games in 2011.
This was a huge test of character for Wenger’s side and they passed with flying colours. The Emirates Stadium side have won eight of their last nine fixtures and, crucially, now have a marquee scalp within that run.
This was the result everyone at the Club has been waiting for.
Hopefully Arsenal's season can kick on from here.
Ahead of the game, Wenger’s main decision concerned the right-back position. With Thomas Vermaelen returning from injury, there were now options. However, the manager decided to retain the back four – and indeed the entire XI - from the 3-1 win over Stoke a week earlier. Djourou was on the right, the Belgian began on the bench.
Going into the game, Arsenal’s form had been as bright as the sunshine that drenched Stamford Bridge for this lunchtime kick-off.
A solid run had put them in the top seven, the Quarter-Finals of the Carling Cup and top of their Champions League group.
However, as the manager acknowledged when speaking to Arsenal Player earlier in the week, this would be a proper test.
The opening minutes proved just how much.
Within seconds of the whistle, Ashley Cole got beyond Djourou on the left and squared for Fernando Torres, who fired wide when he should have scored.
In the following couple of minutes, Cole and Daniel Sturridge would escape into dangerous positions on either flank but their crosses did not find their intended targets.
Arsenal were struggling to settle and would not properly find their feet until they carved out a couple of chances just before the quarter-hour.
In the 12th minute, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta combined in midfield to set Walcott haring down the right. His cross was inviting but Gervinho slid his shot beyond the far post. A glaring miss.
Seconds later, there was another superb opportunity. But this time, Walcott’s cross reared up on Van Persie and the Dutchman hoisted in over the bar at the far post.
But just as it seemed that Arsenal had turned the tide, Chelsea snatched the lead.
Mata’s early cross from the right wing caught out the visiting defence and Lampard pulled away from his marker before steering in his header.
In the circumstances it was a bitter blow and Chelsea looked to take advantage.
On the half-hour Sturridge stormed through to go one-on-one with Szczesny. Fortunately for Arsenal, he flicked his shot beyond the far post.
This was turning out to be a curious game – one with huge pace, minimal midfield control and a raft of spurned chances. So perhaps we should not have been surprised that Arsenal equalised when they looked at their weakest. Though it was a wonderfully-crafted goal.
Ramsey’s pass sent Gervinho scurrying through the heart of the Chelsea defence. When he came face-to-face with Cech the Ivorian cut the ball back for the unmarked Van Persie to turn home.
The home side might have regained the lead immediately when Sturridge darted inside and Ramires converted at the near post. The offside was both rightly-raised and a relief.
However, it seemed that Arsenal had ridden a rough start and would go into half-time all-square.
But this game was never open to confident prediction.
In injury time, Ramsey conceded a corner which Lampard whipped in. Terry bundled home the ball from close range.
Arsenal might have restored parity twice within 55 seconds of the restart. Van Persie’s shot was kicked away by Cech and then Ramsey lifted his effort over the bar from close range.
The visitors’ optimistic start was rewarded a couple of minutes later when Song spread the ball wide to the marauding Santos, who drove a low shot through the legs of Cech and into the net.
Szczesny clattered Cole shortly afterwards as the former Arsenal left-back went through on the left. As there was a covering defender and the tackle was outside the area, the keeper got away with a yellow card and free-kick, which he dealt with himself.
But overall, the visitors had been a different side after break – incisive and determined.
In the 55th minute, their third goal would prove it.
Walcott collected on the right-hand side and drove inside. He stumbled and the Chelsea defence hesitated expecting a whistle. It did not come so, quick as a flash, Walcott picked himself up, weaved inbetween a couple of defenders and fired home his fourth goal of the campaign.
It was just what Arsenal needed and, on the strength of their second-half salvo, thoroughly deserved.
In the 15 minutes that followed Chelsea would pour on the pressure – but created very little. In fact, Ramsey came closest to scoring with quarter of hour remaining but hooked his effort wide.
Wenger made changes with defence in mind – Carl Jenkinson for Djourou, Tomas Rosicky for Walcott – as Arsenal looked towards the final whistle.
However, almost immediately, Chelsea equalised. The long-range strike from Mata was wonderful and well-placed. However, in the immediate build-up Santos had been bumped off the ball by substitute Romelu Lukaku.
It was less than Arsenal were worth this afternoon and, with only 10 minutes left, threatened to steal back two points - but today the visitors would not be denied.
With five minutes left, Van Persie raced on to Terry’s slip, rounded the keeper and restored the lead.
Then, in injury time, he rifled a rasping shot past Cech to make it five.
At full time, the Arsenal team ran arm-in-arm to celebrate in front of their supporters.
This was a famous win, a crucial win, a timely win.
And Arsenal will be all the better for it.
Referee: Andre Marriner
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