A clash between the teams occupying the fourth and fifth place in the Premier League is always an important one, not least in terms of Champions League qualification. Both Arsenal and Chelsea fell out of the top-four bracket at the end of last season and were consequently sentenced to play the Europa League this term.
They entered this clash six points apart – Arsenal sitting below Chelsea, which means a home win would have closed the gap while the visitors coming out on top would’ve stretched it further, making it very difficult for the Gunners to try and secure involvement in UEFA’s elite club competition next season.
Arsenal boss Unai Emery tried to dispel a few of the numerous clouds over the future of Mesu Ozil by stressing that the German remains important to his team and that only his fitness problems are keeping him out of matchday involvement, but eyebrows are likely to stay raised until he’s either regularly in contention, or his departure becomes imminent.
Fullbacks Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal were back after injury issues, while centre-back Rob Holding, forward Danny Welbeck and midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan remained sidelined.
Bernd Leno was in goal. Sokratis Papastathopoulos partnered captain Laurent Koscielny in the heart of defence, with Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolašinac on either side. Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi formed a rather physical combination in midfield. Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang flanked Alexandre Lacazette in attack.
Maurizio Sarri in the Chelsea dugout had a few problems of his own. Like that of Ozil, the future of Hazard remains in the air with fresh reports from Spain linking him with a summer move to Real Madrid once more.
As for injuries, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was out for the Emirates trip, while Olivier Giroud had recovered from a swollen ankle.
Kepa Arrizabalaga stood between the posts. Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso flanked the duo of Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz at the back. The midfield was shaped in the usual way since Sarri took over at Chelsea, with Jorginho acting as the anchor for N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovačić. Eden Hazard led the line upfront, with Willian on the left and Pedro Rodriguez on the right.
The First Half
Arsenal entered the game with more desire and started threatening straight away. They first created a desperate scramble inside Chelsea’s box which the visitors barely survived, then Azpilicueta did some fantastic defending to stop Aubameyang from scoring, before Xhaka took a corner and found the head of Sokratis who missed the target. All of this happened within eight minutes, and only then did Chelsea respond.
The Blues created a chance of their own as Azpilicueta’s lovely cross found Hazard in the box and the Belgian got a shot off despite being under pressure from Sokratis, but failed to hit the target.
But the Gunners hit again quickly, and Kepa was first called into action to stop a Koscielny header from a corner, but there was nothing the world’s most expensive ‘keeper could do to stop Lacazette from opening the scoring in the 14th minute.
The Frenchman brilliantly tamed a sharp cross from Bellerin at an angle some ten yards from the goal, before turning around Alonso and firing into the near top corner.
Aubameyang almost made it two soon afterwards as he took advantage of a mistake by Azpilicueta and turned Rudiger inside-out, before toe-poking the ball straight at Kepa.
Chelsea finally hit back after that as a great, obviously rehearsed move fooled Arsenal’s offside trap and Luiz’s long ball found Pedro behind their backs, but the former Barcelona forward’s lob missed the target by a hair’s width. The game had opened up and picked up tremendous pace.
The visitors were attacking more now, and in the 24th minute Alonso’s cross found Kante completely unmarked on the penalty spot, but the midfielder couldn’t control it properly and Jorginho followed it up with a strong drive off target.
But as they searched for an equalizer, Chelsea were leaving a lot of space for the Gunners to exploit at the other end, and Ramsey looked especially lively as he looked to spark smart, quick moves forward. However, it was Aubameyang again who almost scored the second as Kolašinac set him up for what would have been a spectacular overhead hit, but the Gabonese just missed the target.
Luiz tried to put an end to Ramsey’s industry with a sharp tackle in the 37th minute, but all he got for his trouble was a yellow card. He also gave Arsenal a set-piece in a decent position wide on the right, and the Gunners made it count.
The free-kick was taken diagonally to the far edge of the box, from where Kolašinac brought it down towards Sokratis. The Greek sent it into the box just at the right moment to catch five Chelsea players about to go the wrong way and find Koscielny alone on the edge of six yards, onside. The captain delivered with a free header.
Right on the end of 45 minutes, Alonso came very close at the other end with a header of his own, hitting the post. Willian also got into a good position as he cut inside from the left at the very end of the two-minute stoppage time, but having created the space he needed to shoot, the Brazilian completely mishit it and sent it out for a throw-in.
The Second Half
Realizing they needed to produce a strong response after the break, Chelsea pushed forward immediately, but their attacks seriously lacked potency. Willian getting himself in a good position again in the 53rd minute and his shot hitting the back of Alonso and going out for a goal-kick was a perfect example of what was going on.
It was much better from them three minutes later when Willian broke down the left and pulled it back to find Pedro alone on the edge of the box, but the Spaniard sent his shot sky-high.
However, apart from the centre-back duo, Arsenal’s defending was far from reassuring for Emery at this point. They repeatedly failed to clear their lines properly and allowed the visitors to come knocking on the door time and again.
In the 63rd minute, Sarri made his first change by introducing Ross Barkley for Kovačić.
Following an extremely lame attempt by Chelsea to play the ball out from the back, Arsenal pounced and created havoc in their box twice in quick succession, but first Kolašinac failed to find a teammate with a squared ball from the left, and then Bellerin did the same on the other side.
In the 67th minute, Emery replaced Ramsey and Lacazette with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi and moved Aubameyang into the middle, while Sarri sent on Olivier Giroud for Willian and moved Hazard to the left. Soon afterwards Arsenal suffered a heavy blow as Bellerin, freshly returned from injury, fell to the ground under no contact at all and had to be stretchered off the pitch. Mohamed Elneny stepped off the bench, and home team’s formation took a flat 4-4-2 shape, with Maitland-Niles dropping to the right-back post and Elneny joining the midfield trio behind Aubameyang and Iwobi upfront.
Chelsea continued their fruitless attacks and looked more frustrated by the minute. The last substitution Sarri made came 10 minutes from time as young Callum Hudson-Odoi came on for Pedro.
The focus of both sets of players seemed to be wavering towards the end. There were many misplaced and mistimed passes, many offensive fouls especially by Chelsea, which suited Arsenal just fine. There were no less than six minutes of stoppage time after the 90 were up, and Chelsea could have made it interesting immediately but Giroud could redirect a pass from the left towards the goal from six yards.
With Alonso and Azpilicueta playing almost as wingers at this point and Luiz constantly making runs forward, Rudiger and Jorginho were the last line of defence as the Blues tried their best to get at least a consolation goal late on. Meanwhile, Arsenal weren’t much interested in anything else than staying firm at the back and seeing the game out, as they eventually did.
Quite apart from the respective table positions of the two teams, it was an interesting clash between two managers in a new league, trying to rebuild their teams and cope with those who have gone far ahead in the process.
Arsenal deservedly won the game. They took advantage of two moments, one brilliantly executed by their classy striker, the other an advantage taken from confusion among the opposition defenders. Chelsea, on the other hand, created very little, and what they had, they messed up through sloppiness or were stopped by quality defending.
The gap between them in the table is now reduced to three points, and Manchester United, who won their game at home against Brighton and Hove Albion earlier in the day, are breathing down their necks.
There is everything to play for in the Premier League’s top-four race.
ARSENAL: Leno 7, Koscielny 8, Sokratis 8, Bellerin 7.5 (72′ Elneny 6.5), Kolašinac 7.5, Torreira 6.5, Xhaka 6, Guendouzi 7, Ramsey 8 (68′ Maitland-Niles 6), Aubameyang 7.5, Lacazette 8 (67′ Iwobi 6).
CHELSEA: Kepa 7, Luiz 7, Rudiger 7, Azpilicueta 7.5, Alonso 6.5, Jorginho 6, Kante 6, Kovačić 6 (63′ Barkley 6), Willian 6 (68′ Giroud 6), Pedro 7 (80′ Hudson-Odoi 6.5), Hazard 7.
GOALS: Lacazette 14′, Koscielny 39′.
YELLOW CARDS: Luiz 37′, Barkley 90′.
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor.
DATE & VENUE: January 19, 2019, Emirates Stadium, London.
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