Arsenal finally shook off their Chelsea hoodoo as the champions' miserable run in the league continued
Arsenal: Fabianski, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Song,
Fabregas, Wilshere, Walcott, van Persie, Nasri.
Subs: Szczesny, Diaby, Rosicky, Squillaci, Arshavin, Chamakh, Bendtner.
Chelsea: Cech, Ferreira, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole, Essien, Mikel, Lampard, Kalou, Drogba, Malouda.
Subs: Turnbull, Ramires, Bosingwa, Van Aanholt, Bruma, Kakuta, McEachran.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear)
So, will Wenger's virgins finally prove their prowess? The manager's been banging on for years now about how close they are to delivering when it matters and, indeed, declared in the build-up to this game that once they notch their first significant conquest they'll be unstoppable. That, much like his team selection against Tottenham in the League Cup earlier in this campaign, amounts to a tacit admission that he has wrong not to take the cups more seriously in previous years. He might have expedited his side's development if he had been less snooty towards those trophies – Jose Mourinho, for instance, knew the importance of the first triumph and the battle-hardiness that Arsenal fans fear from Chelsea tonight was to a large extent forged by their 2005 League Cup victory.
Having effectively acknowledged the error of his ways in that regard, Arsenal look poised to land the League Cup this season (but have still messed up in the Champions League and, as WBA and Newcasatle can testify, in the Premier League), but if they are to win one of the trophies that they really crave, then perhaps Wenger also needs to admit the error of another one of his ways - by reinforcing the side's spine in January. Because for all the manager's prattle about the various nuances of his players' mental evolution, it has often seemed that an even more fundamental problem is that in key positions his players just aren't good enough. But hey, maybe that's not the case – and maybe Wenger's vision will finally become reality tonight and his team will prevail over Chelsea in an epic contest, the victory serving as the catalyst that turns Lukasz Fabianski, Laurent Koscielny, Alex Song, Theo Walcott, Andrei Arshavin et al into complete players. Then Wenger can flip V-for-vindication signs at the whole world. Probably starting with Patrice Evra. And Nani.
Chelsea's methods, too, have looked questionable this season. Like Wenger they seem to have misjudged the ability or rate of development of their young players, who, as it turned out, haven't shown themselves to be quite ready to replace the likes of Deco, Michael Ballack and Ricardo Carvahlo. So when many of Chelsea's other established champions were missing through injury, the team's form dipped (Arsenal had foreseen this year's ago and were supposedly positioning themselves to take advantage of it, but have so far failed to do so). But Michael Essien and John Terry are back to their best and Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard may not be far of it. Chelsea have only picked up six points from the last 21 available but this is an ideal opportunity for them to prove that they remain a force to be reckoned with. Or an ideal opportunity for Arsenal to beat them.
This, then, is a huge match. The points at stake are precious but this is also about both sides' self-esteem and their belief in their own futures. We could be in for a real treat. It's going to be a draw, isn't it?
7:20pm: So the teams have dropped ... and the things that jump out are (i) Djourou is reckoned to be better equipped to contain Drogba than Squillaci is - which seems a sound judgement, (ii) Anelka is not even on the bench, which, even though he hasn't scored for a million years, suggests he's ill or injured and (iii) Chamakh is on the bench, which in one way is understandable because he has looked a litle jaded in recent weeks but, on the other hand, also increases the suspicion that Wenger is not sure how Chamakh and Van Persie can fit into the same 11.
Predictions: Tottenham's Tom Huddlestone (@thuddz) is predicting a 2-1 defeat for Arsenal, even specifying that Essien and Drogba will get the goals. Aaron Lennon (@aaronleenonpsl), meanwhile, reckons it'll be a draw. I'm with the speedster.
Neither Walcott nor Arshavin have been brilliant this season ... but I can see two reasons for the former's inclusion ahead of the latter. Arsenal completely failed to play their way behind United at Old Trafford in their last outing and, though he looked headless when he came on in that game, he might be expected to dash behind Chelsea tonight. Secondly, the threat of his speed may make Ashley Cole hesitate slightly before raiding forward. Elsewhere, El-Hadji Diouf is the latest footballer to make a prediction on twitter: he's going for 2-0 to Chelsea with Drogba scoring.
7:35pm: Carlo Ancelotti to Sky just now: "We want to play our football, with concentration, strength and power." Three qualities that Arsenal often lack.
7:38pm: "This is an Arsenal v Chelsea match which I think your MBM readers would really enjoy," guffaws Peter Morgan.
7:40pm: Wenger to Sky: "The players sometimes think you have to be eceptional in a big game. I think we have to do the basic things right and then, perhaps, you can become exceptional." Also stressed the importance of the first goal, because that will bring Chelsea out.
7:45pm: "Dear Paul, I wish we could have gone into this game with a victory against Stoke, but sadly that was not to be. So coming on the back of that defeat by ManU, this is going to be the game that'll define our season, in my opinion," trumpets Michelle Peters-Jones. "The last time we played Chelsea, we were pretty darn flawless, but still lost. I wonder if we're going to be playing a scrappier game today? The inclusion of van Persie is heartening, but I wonder about the wisdom of keeping on a player who has been more injured than fit throughout his time with us. Either way, I am loaded up with the chicken sandwiches and Kahlua mudslides... and hopefully enough of them will numb the pain if we fail to win ..."
7:47pm: "Now is the time for Arsenal to show their stuff!" booms Richard Brown 13 minutes too early.
7:50pm: Sky say that Anelka is out because he picked up a knee injury in training. No matter, Essien will be Chelsea's key performer tonight, I'm saying.
7:57pm: Out march the gladiators and you can hear and even feel the anticipation in the arena ... until Sky cut to commercials. "Michelle Peters-Jones is drinking mudslides?" blurts Joe Pearson. "Given the chill in the air, wouldn't a Polar Bear be more appropriate? Yes, I had to Google drink names. I need a life." In the absence of a life, please feel free to keep following this commentary ...
7:58pm: "Did Richard Keys just say to Andy Gray 'I wish we could smell the tunnel'?" gasps Sean Welch. I don't know the answer because I wasn't paying attention.
1 min: Arsenal get the game under way ... and do so at a cracking tempo. Wenger said the other day that the best way to dislodge Chelsea's defence would be to move the ball around at break-neck speed and that's what his players are trying to do.
3 min: After impressive Arsenal interplay, Nasri clips in an inviting cross from the left, but no one can reach it. Encouraging start for Arsenal though. Meanwhile on Twitter, Kevin Davies finally lays his cards on the table and predicts 1-1. Ryan Babel's going for an Arsenal win.
5 min: Chelsea venture forward for the first time but the move comes to a halt when Walcott hares back to tussle with Malouda and the Frenchman fouls him. "You mentioned Arsenal have changed their approach to the cups, but I'm wondering if they're adjusting their approach on the pitch as well?" announces Mike Gibbons. "At Old Trafford they were not shy in putting themselves about, which I thought might be in part to having been riled by Evra, but if you look at the Premiership Fair Play table their record is appalling and they're in the bottom three, a far cry from the image regularly portrayed of them in the media. Might we see them try to take Chelsea on physically for the first time tonight?" They've certainly been holding their own so far, though it hasn't been an especially bruising game so far - the outstanding trait has been the speed of Arsenal's passing.
6 min: Great chance for Van Persie! Missed horribly! Song undid the Chelsea defence with a well-aimed clip over the top and Van Persie, from seven yards, completely missed his kick.
8 min: Arsenal loes possession in midfield and are all too easily exposed, as Drogba races on to a throughball and has time and space to shoot from the edge of the area. His low drive skims wide.
9 min: Chelsea are having to weather quite a storm from Arsenal. Both Nasri and Walcott have flown down the flanks in the last minute and delivered good crosses, which came to nothing. The decision to leave out Chamakh, who would have been more likely than Van Persie to get on the end of them (and would probably have buried that chance of a moment ago), is not looking clever at the moment.
11 min: Cech boots a long ball towards Drogba, who makes light of the presence of Koscileny and takes the ball down before offloading to Malouda ... who overhits a pass intended for Essien, who, interestingly, has spent a lot of time wide on the right so far: Clichy hasn't been in great form lately, are Chelsea intending to grill him tonight?
13 min: Terry loses his way in midfield and then loses the ball ... and then aborts Arsenal's counter-attack by pulling down Van Persie. Outrageously the ref only lectures him. He doesn't have the England armband any more, you know, officials are allowed to book him now. "Re: 5 mins, Arsenal at the Stadium of Light are comfortably the dirtiest team Sunderland have played this season," fumes Stephen Gibb.
15 min: Clichy tonks a long shot very far wide.
16 min: Drogba gets the jump on Arsenal's centrebacks to meet a cross from the right, but can't find the target from 12 yards.
18 min: Van Persie curls a delicious freekick into the danger zone and Djourou hurls himself to the ground in the vicinity of Terry. The home fans howl for a penalty but there was no foul.
20 min: Drogba nods a long ball down for Lampard, who had made a typical surge from midfield. Song originally let him go but recovered in time to block Lampard's shot from the edge of the area.
22 min: There is plenty of movement from Arsenal's front four, with no one permanently occupying the centre-forward role. Van Persie is flitting around everywhere - indeed, he has jsut collected the ball wide on the right and then darted towards the penalty area, where he went down following a tangle of legs with Malouda. Again the home fans demand a penalty, again the ref is right not to listen to them.
23 min: Nasri forces Cech to make a (comfortable) save from a 25-yard freekick. Then Chelsea tear down the other end and win a freekick for themselves. Koscielny does well to head Malouda's in-swinger away.
25 min: Mikel goofs on the edge of his own box but then outfights three Arsenal scavengers to win the ball back and clear.
26 min: Oh dear. Fabregas released Walcott with a fine ball into the right-hand channel. Walcott raced after it and whizzes into the box, whereupon his touch betrays him, allowing Terry to lumber back and boot the ball clear.
27 min: "Boooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" go the home fans. Can you guess who has the ball?
29 min: Walcott does well to retrieve a wayward pass from Sagna, and then skins Cole ... who clumsily trips him and, to the delight of the home fans, cops a booking. Freekick to Arsenal by the corner flag: Van Persie floats it into the box, but Chelsea clear.
32 min: Just as Van der Sar did with Rooney at Old Trafford two weeks ago, Cech is trying to expose the soft centre in Arsenal's defence by whacking long for Drogba. The Ivorian has duly won most of his aerial duels so far but a moment ago Koscielny did well to rise above him and butt clear. Perhaps he's getting the measure of his man? But who, Shane Loftus wants to know, can get the measure of tonight's ref: "Can you or some of the MBM readers explain Mark Clattenburg's hair?" quizzes Shane. "I mean what is it? what exactly is going on with it ?, does he actually think it looks good? Has someone, probably his hairdresser/barber, told him it looks good?"
33 min: Lots of Arsenal activity around the Chelsea box but the visitors are defending with gusto. And in his desperation to win a loose ball at the edge of the area Van Persie clatters into Terry (I think) and becomes the second player to get a yellow card, all of which raises doubts about the wisdom of one Jacob van Oosterom, who has just mailed this opinion: "Vanh Persie has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I can't get the game here but saw lots of him during the World Cup. He'll never be back. Afraid to venture deep into the kitchen. Ship him to Schalke for Huntelaar. Not a great player but he can take the heat and scores lots."
35 min: That's lovely interplay by Arsenal. Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie pierced the Chelsea defence with clever rapid passes, before Van Persie blazed high and wide from 14 yards.
38 min: Arsenal continue to dominate possession but Chelsea are generally retaining their shape and opportunities are rare.
39 min: Kalou booked for clattering into Clichy.
40 min: Terry blocks a Sagna cross with his chest but then Walcott nicks in to steal the ball away from him. The winger tries to cut the ball back from the by-line for a team-mate but Terry bundles it behind for a corner.
41 min: Chelsea break! But Kalou's pass to Essien is poor, enabling Arsenal to kill the chance.
42 min: Wonderful effort from Nasri! He attempted to chip Cech from 25 yards and very nearly succeeded. Cech, backpedalling frantically, excelled to get a hand to it and tip the ball over for a corner. "I'm watching Arsenal v Chelsea on ESPN3 in the USA," laments Jen Abergel. "Their great commentator Steve McManaman has just said 'speaking very technically and mathematically either team could get three points'. I guess that's why he is paid the big bucks."
GOAL! Arsenal 1-0 Chelsea (Song 44') They've done it their way! Arsenal dissected Chelsea with snappy passing, a nice move culminating with a one-two between Song and Wilshere just outside the area before Song smashed a low shot past Cech. Cue delirium at the Emirates!
Half-time: So now Chelsea have to create. Until now they'd been counting on the conventional wisdom, ie that they could soak up the pressure and then catch Arsenal with a direct counter-attack. They'll have to come up with a different ploy now, and that is exactly what Wenger had been hoping for pre-match for now there will be more space for Arsenal to enjoy. This second half is going to be interesting. Replace Van Persie with Chamakh and Arsenal will have an even better chance of winning, I think.
Half-time banter: "There I was thinking that Mario Ballotelli may be onto something about Jack Wilshere ... and then he assists the goal," gasps David Walker. "What do I know?" I don't know.
"Far be it for me as a Spurs fan to praise a Gooner but Sagna is playing some good attacking stuff here," admits Jerry Thomas. He's having a belter of a season, in fairness. Sagna, that is, I don't know how Jerry Thomas is performing.
Hmmmn: If the scores stay like this Chelsea will be six points behind Manchester United having played a game more. Their title chances wouldn't look particularly bright ... indeed, Roman Abramovich would have to start fretting about missing out on a Champions League place. Will that prompt him to get out his wallet in January? Might Carlo Ancelotti win, therefore, even in defeat?
46 min: Chelsea change: Mikel off, Ramires on. Will that really make a difference?
47 min: Walcott's cross from the right takes a deflection off Lampard, giving Arsenal a corner. The early pattern to this period is the same as the first-half, which is good news for Arsenal.
48 min: Ramires get the ball in the middle and immediately goes on a most unMikel-like gallop forward before making a progressive pass to Ferreira, who had provided an overlap. The move then breaks down but at least there was an indication that Chelsea are trying to alter their approach.
50 min: Arsenal are sustaining their high tempo and crisp passing. Only dogged defending is keeping Chelsea in the game at the moment.
GOAL! Arsenal 2-0 Chelsea (Fabregas 51') Soft centre? It's Chelsea who suffered from that affliction there. Terry confused himself 10 yards outside his area, Essien attempted to tidy up but instead sent a short backpass towards Cech, allowing Walcott to dash in and tip it away from the out-rushing keeper and into the path of Fabregas, who slotted into the empty net from 18 yards.
GOAL! Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea (Walcott 53') That's superb play from Walcott! First he showed speed and hunger to win the ball off Malouda in midfield and then he demonstrated the composure and cleverness he has often been accused of lacking and dispatched a perfect low shot past Cech from the edge of the box! Chelsea look a rabble.
57 min: Chelsea change: Malouda off, Kakuta on. Chelsea's substitutions tonight do not exactly inspire fear. Except, perhaps, in Chelea fans.
GOAL! Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea (Ivanovic 57') Unconvicning defending by both Fabianksi and Koscielny, neither of whom reacted decisively to a dangerous in-swinging freekick from Drogba. Their hesitancy allowed Ivanovic to win the ball and nod into the net from close range.
59 min: Lampard, who has had little impact on the game, is booked for tripping Song on mid-way. Meanwhile on Sky, co-commentator and devout Gooner Alan Smith is openly expressing his fears of a Chelsea comeback. "Abramovich buy in January?" storms Tom Shaw. "More likely this defeat will prompt him to sack Ancelotti and find someone else. Big Sam is available, or what about Rafa?" Ponder that, Chelsea fans.
61 min: Chelsea change: Bosingwa on, Ferreira off. "A writer (Bill James) once said the only thing a player over 30 can do to surprise you is get old in a hurry," recalls Hubert O'Hearn "Hello Chelsea."
63 min: Chelsea are beginning to assert themselves now and looking more menacing. A last-ditch tackle by Song has just prevented Drogba from getting off a shot from close range. "I note that Walcott appears to have been given a football brain for Christmas," drawls gary Naylor. "But nobody gave Arsene a goalkeeper." Surely the problem is that he refuses to give himself one.
64 min: Song, who has been excellent tonight, dives to head a shoddy Drogba corner clear.
66 min: Arsenal are attempting to stall Chelseaq's momentum by dinking the ball around the back for a bit. "Arsenal have always seemed to be too much of a cycling-shorts-and-snoods outfit to win the title: the next 25 minutes should tell us whether their cajones are about to drop or whether they'll disappear back into their wooly neckwear," declares Justin Kavanagh.
68 min: After some good Arsenal possession play, Fabregas gives the ball away and then pulls the marauding Essien back. He is punished with a deserved yellow card. Drogba will float a freekick in from the same position that yielded the Chelsea goal. This time, however, Arsenal defend it properly.
69 min: Arsenal rage forward on the break and Walcott picks Nasri out with a fine cross-field pass - well, a hopeful crossfield pass that was aided by a maladroit attempt to intervene by Kakuta, who instead played it into Nasri's path. Nasri tried to dink it over the out-rushing Cech but the keeper stood up and blocked. "This game is following the goals sequence in the Lego game - 3-0, 3-1," notes Sean Moore. "Could it really end 4-3? How weird would that be?" Very weird indeed, I'd say.
72 min: Arsenal change: Diaby on, Walcott off. Guess that means Wenger has not particularly enjoyed the openness of ther last few minutes. Everyone else has, though, it's been engrossing. Walcott, in case you haven't gathered it already, had a splendid game. "Tell Justin Kavanagh it's cojones," sniffs Simon Frank. "Cajones are drawers, like in a chest of drawers. On second thoughts, that's close enough I suppose."
75 min: Another Arsenal change: Chamakh on, Van Persie off. It's been coming. "A recent guardian article investigated the 'Chelsea talent factory' and Abramovich's dream for Chelsea to be self sufficient," remembers Luke Stevenson. "When you compare the 19 year old Kakuta, with the 18 year old Wilshere, you have to say, that dream is a very, very, very long way away." I've seen Kakuta play for Chelsea youths and he was superb. Perhaps he would benefit from a loan stint at a slightly smaller club, as Wilshere did at Bolton.
77 min: Arsenal have generally coped with the threat of a comeback well, helped, it must be said, by Chelsea's lack of cohesion. "We will take Carlo to Liverpool if he's looking for a job tomorrow!" yaps Anthony O'Connell.
79 min: Terry attempts to pick out Kalou in much the same way as Fabregas did with Walcott on several occassion earlier on. Terry is no Fabregas. And, come to think of it, Kalou is no Walcott.
80 min: Arsenal pick their way through the Chelsea defence again, but Diaby, when presented with a fine scoring chance by Wilshere, demonstrates his lack of sharpness by pausing enough to allow Lampard to get back and make a block. "ESPN 3 are now debating whether Chelsea will substitute Lamps - seemingly ignorant of the fact that the Blues have already made three changes," groans Jen Abergel. "I wonder how one gets a job commentating on 'soccer' for ESPN , if it's just about being a Brit living in the US, then I might apply. I can string a sentence together coherently most days, so maybe I am ineligible after all."
82 min: It's still a frenetic game ... at least it was until the ref paused the game to allow treatment on for Fabregas, whose ankle seems to have been damaged by a clumsy Ramires tackle.
84 min: Drogba wallops a freekick over the bar from 25 yards. "D'oh, I can't find it on the net but Ray Wilkins must be doing an impersonation of that scene in The Simpsons when Mr. Burns recalls murdering the Irishman with his bumper car, as a little boy, and, through five or six dissolves, we follow him endlessly laughing," chortles Steven Hughes. "Laughing in the lying in bed at night; laughing in the shower; laughing in church; etc. etc. etc. That must have been Wilkins for the last few weeks since he was 'let go'."
86 min: In a reversal of the first half, Arsenal are now allowing Chelsea to have the ball, satisfied that their opponents will not penetrate them. So far there has been little suggestion that Chelsea could nab a second goal, let alone a third. "Surely "talent factory" implies the players are manufactured instead of the standard Premier League strategy of lured the best young players from around Europe - how many of the 'Chelsea talent factory' are actually made by Chelsea and how many are produced by other teams and rebadged?" quibbles John Brookes. "Same of course as the much vaunted Arsenal talent factory was doing for years."
88 min: Arsenal change: Fabregas, shaking his head, trudges off. Rosicky replaces him.
89 min: Fabianksi launches a long ball forward. Chamakh secures possession for Arsenal, who resume knocking it about, taunting Chelsea with their cohesion.
90 min: A Chelsea freekick triggers chaos in the Arsenal box! Terry could have scored but miscued, then Drogba could have scored but his powerful shot from 16 yards was blocked by Song, who, in my book, has been the man of the match.
90+2 min: Arsenal are swaggering now. And Chamakh showed commendable compsoure there not to shoot from a ridiculous angle after rounding Cech. Instead he knocked the ball back to Nasri and Arsenal retained possession far, far from their own goal. They are managing this match well, something they failed to do against, for example, Spiurs earlier this season.
Full-time: That is exactly what Wenger ordered and, impressively, he resists the temptation to flip those V-signs into the camera as he struts down the tunnel. In addition to their familiar slickness and increased speed, Arsenal showed solidity, intensity and strength. It remains to be seen whether they have now surmounted the mental hurdle that Wenger regretted but certainly tonight could not have gone better for them - unless, of course, they had kept a clean sheet. Chelsea's problems, meanwhile, look chronic.