For the first time this season Arsenal showed how good they really can be as they blew Chelsea away with a devastating second half display.
Before this match it had been much vaunted that we’d won seven out of eight in all competitions. But when you consider six of those victories had come at home perhaps the stat painted a prettier picture than the reality. Although performances were improving slowly, we hadn’t really convinced in any of those wins and today was billed as the first proper test since our resurgence.
Well, we sure as hell convinced at Stamford Bridge.
The early signs weren’t good as Chelsea set about ruthlessly exploiting our weakness in both full back positions. Djourou was caught out twice in the opening minutes while Santos resembled a middleweight boxer playing in a charity football match.
As I slouched back on the sofa wondering how long the first Chelsea goal would take, something happened that surprised me and gave me hope — Walcott ripped their defence to shreds twice in a minute and we should’ve been ahead. First Gervinho missed an absolute sitter and then van Persie hit a trickier chance over the bar.
Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine this...
Just as my hopes rose, so they came crashing back to earth as Mata beat Santos with ridiculous ease and floated over a cross which Mertesacker misjudged, allowing Lampard an easy header for 1-0. “Here we go again with the comic defending” I thought, “we’ll concede at least three today.”
I was right, but what I didn’t foresee was how good we’d be going forward. Ramsey, Gervinho and Walcott were buzzing and we were giving as good as we got. But our defence was still in a generous mood and Santos allowed Sturridge to run onto a Lampard through ball which he thankfully shanked wide.
Five minutes later, the Brazilian highlighted how much better he was going forward when he started the move of the match. Feeding Ramsey, the Welshman then played a delicious pass to Gervinho who calmly squared it for van Persie to equalise.
Was this really the same Gervinho who selfishly shot instead of passing to van Persie at Blackburn a few weeks ago? It would appear the lesson has been learned because that’s three assists he’s provided for his captain in the last two games — Wenger has moulded another raw talent into an effective team player.
With Ramsey looking especially creative we were right back in it. Unfortunately, this gave our defence another opportunity to show that it is capable of undermining any good work done by our attacking players when Santos allowed Sturridge to beat him with ease and whip in a cross for Ramires to steer into the net. The linesman’s flag rightly chalked that goal off, but on the stroke of halftime we hit the suicide button again.
As Lampard’s corner came over, Mertesacker lost Terry and the Chelsea
racist skipper bundled a scrappy effort in off a post that Arteta was supposed to be standing on. Only Arteta was no longer there as he’d wandered behind Szczesny for some reason and was standing uselessly in the goalmouth when he was joined by the ball.
So 2-1 down at the break after a display of excellent promise going forward and alarming ineptitude at the back.
But while I was watching Jamie Redknapp and Gary Neville rip apart the embarrassing defending they’d seen, Wenger must have been giving the teamtalk of his life because the Gunners came out for the second half bristling with determination and belief.
We got at our hosts from the off and had already missed two decent chances by the 49th minute. Then Song found Santos and the left-back made amends for his terrible first half with a composed finish for 2-2.
Ramsey was superb again and is starting to fulfill his potential
A few moments later Ashley Cole broke free and Szczesny inexplicably came haring out of his goal and took him out. A red card was a possibility, but would’ve been harsh as he was going away from goal. Nevertheless it was a rush of blood he’s had a couple of times already in his Arsenal career. It’s a weak part of Szczesny’s game, but improved decision making will surely come with experience and he got away with it on this occasion.
Up the other end we went and Walcott — playing his best game of the season — ran at the Chelsea defence, slipping just as he reached the blue barrier of Terry and Ivanovic. Somehow though, he sprang to his feet and showed incredible footwork to nimbly skip between them before rifling a drive inside Cech’s near post. 3-2 up and only ten minutes of the second half gone! Could we concentrate and hold on now?
We did better then hold on. We dominated for the next 25 minutes as our much maligned defence started to pull its weight and kept Chelsea at arms length. Mertesacker was much more dominant and decisive, Djourou had adapted to his unaccustomed role on the right and Koscielny continued his solid form with an excellent display.
But the most remarkable transformation was Santos metamorphosing from a hungover pub player into a Brazilian wing-back. I want to know what was in his halftime cuppa because he owned the left flank after the break. He made 11 tackles during the match (our next highest was Koscielny and Arteta with four) and I reckon most of those were in the second half. Like the Arsenal performance in general, he grew in stature and confidence after the break and showed exactly what he’s capable of.
The chances had slowed although Ramsey was too honest for his own good when he rode a clumsy challenge from Cole in the area when he was entitled to go down. We looked to have weathered the storm, only for the ref to miss a clear and blatant foul on Santos which allowed Mata room to fire a shot past Szczesny from range. Song — who’d also been imperious after the break — slid in and was millimetres from a wonderful block, but the shot actually deflected off him slightly and arced agonisingly into the corner.
So 3-3 with 10 minutes left and the chavs in the stadium roared their team on as they surged forward. A betting man would’ve piled money on Chelsea to snatch a late winner, but this was to be our day. Terry managed to secure the prize for ‘Worst defending of the Day’ (a very competitive category that one) when he slipped and allowed van Persie a clear run at Cech. The Dutch maestro casually put the keeper on his arse, sidestepped him, stroked the ball into an empty goal and ran over to the delirious travelling Gooners.
‘Get fucking in!’ I texted everyone in my contacts.
A stunned Chelsea sent everybody forward and Koscielny had to make a brave block to deny Mata. Then another ball was pumped into our area and Jenkinson did well to head clear under pressure, allowing us to sweep upfield on the break. Arteta fed van Persie, Captain Fantastic swung his left boot, the net bulged, I cheered so loudly I scared the cat and Arsenal had three deserved points.
What I saw at the final whistle was almost as encouraging as the second half performance. Arsenal players genuinely delighted, hugging each other and celebrating in front of the ecstatic away fans as if they’d won the League there and then. A display of unity (and vindication?) after a fantastic result that will give them enormous confidence for the rest of the season.
After the game Wenger blabbed on about us having “mental strength.” No surprise there, he says that after every match win, lose or draw. But for the first time since February he was actually right — the team deserves enormous credit for coming from behind twice, away from home, in a crucial match everybody expected them to lose.
We mustn’t ignore the defensive vulnerability we still show, but the improvement in just one half alone from Mertesacker and Santos allied to the return of Vermaelen and terrific form of Koscielny suggests a corner has finally and gloriously been turned.
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