A few days of exuberance later, I still believe Avram Grant is a man blessed with extraordinary luck. Even with his famous 2-1 victory over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge last week, his tactics and decision making still doesn’t inspire confidence… that is until the day he adds to the trophy cabinet. So near and yet so far doesn’t make the cut.In the wake of this defeat, Arsenal are dumped into third spot and are left reflecting on their sputtering title challenge – the loss in momentum since that fateful 4-0 loss to Manchester United in the FA Cup is staggering. Meanwhile, Chelsea kept pace with league leader Manchester United on 68 points.
Chelsea’s amazing run of 78 unbeaten home matches was nearly destroyed by Bacary Sagna’s first goal for Arsenal. It was the Gunners who appeared more lively in the first half, their usual pretty passing football giving them a slight upper hand. Gallas and van Persie had excellent opportunities to kill off the match. For his second start since a long spell in the treatment room, van Persie showed promising signs of recovering his scintillating form.However, both teams maintained the uneasy stalemate till the hour mark. In the 59th minute, Arsenal finally took the lead they deserved as Sagna scored with a near-post header from a Cesc Fabregas corner. Chelsea floundered for about ten minutes but they managed to equalize on a bout of renewed vigor and inspiration. The situation was also helped by the untimely loss of Sagna to an injured ankle as he made a clearance. Eboue was switched to right back, Diaby came on and the equilibrium of Arsenal squad was affected.
In the 70th minute, Avram Grant were jeered by fans who chanted “You don’t know what you’re doing” as he made a double substitution of Claude Makelele and Michael Ballack with Juliano Belleti and Nicolas Anelka. It almost caused an embarrassing players’ revolt right there on the pitch as Makelele and Terry reacted indignantly. Fortunately, the Chelsea players have the basic manners to obey orders and the tactical changes paid off.In the 73rd minute, William Gallas failed to clear a long ball from John Terry which ran loose to Didier Drogba and he gladly fired a scorcher past Manuel Almunia. Replays showed an offside as Drogba was interfering with play and had touched the ball as the first person. Too bad, the referee decided otherwise and this ends up as just another statistic on the subjectivity of implementing offside rule.
Gallas was again beaten in the air, in the 82nd minute, this time by Nicolas Anelka who flicked the ball onwards. Kolo was in the right place to intercept but he made an uncharacteristic error by missing it completely with a kick in the air and the ball fell nicely to Drogba. He hit it into the ground and Alumnia misjudged the wicked bounce. In the closing minutes, Drogba could have a hat-trick if Almunia had not denied his effort at the near post. Arsene Wenger was disappointed but he remained defiant, saying: “I feel the spirit in the team is fantastic. Today the players will be very disappointed because they gave everything. We have first to win our next game before we talk about the title. I do not believe that we had any confidence problem today.”
While it is certainly not a confidence crisis yet, the team has started disbelieving in certain players. The team spirit is weak; not surprising, since you can’t bank on a petulant captain (Gallas) to foster camaraderie. Theo Walcott was ignored by his teammates and Bendtner, coming on as a substitute, saw little of the ball. From the look of it, both are regarded as fringe players and prime chances do not come their way easily.Speaking of Walcott, I am puzzled why Wenger complained about him not developing properly as a footballer, while his selective blindness missed out Eboue. Arsenal are in serious trouble if Wenger believes Eboue has fully “developed.” He was unable to make meaningful contributions and in terms of defensive abilities, he stands out with his discreet handballs and not so discreet shoving and playacting at times.
Arsenal also have this habit of trying to walk the ball into the net. A bit one-dimensional as most of their attacks are broken up before then. The Gunners are loathe to try the long balls, set-pieces, or go wide and swing crosses into the center. Especially set-pieces as Tottenham had exploited this weakness in Chelsea over two victories. Know thy opponent and half the battle is won.In fact, it was Chelsea who capitalized on Arsenal’s weakness. The aerial balls, coupled with a menacing Drogba was the ultimate KO combo. This resulted in Chelsea looking more dangerous in the box even as Arsenal’s link up play is far more superior. Gallas was beaten in the air twice with dire consequences but to be fair to him, the entire Arsenal squad is lacking a defender who possess the right qualities to deal with Drogba.
Adebayor is struggling but considering how he progressed from a rough diamond into a serious contender for the Golden Boot award, Arsenal already owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the team thus far. Adebayor’s effectiveness depends highly on the service from Alex Hleb and Fabregas since he is not talented enough to create chances on his own, like Thierry Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo.Hleb’s form can swing from impressive to mediocre and in recent matches, he appeared jaded but Wenger does not have the luxury of resting him. By awarding Hleb a role just behind the striker while pushing van Persie to the left, Wenger may have erred as Hleb is not Steven Gerrard. Luckily, van Persie gave a good account of himself but I suspect he may have caused greater damage if he returned to his favorite central role and is fully fit.
Arsenal are struggling with a thin squad. Wenger has already done incredibly well (coincided with Adebayor’s unstoppable form) to stay in the hunt despite key injuries, but there was always the possibility that the character he continually emphasized will fail him one day. If Wenger had made better use of the January transfer window to bolster his squad, the last 5 winless league matches may have yielded different results.Though this is only Arsenal’s second defeat of the entire season, chances of winning the Premier League title is diminishing, with only seven matches to play. Chelsea are back with a fighting chance of securing the title for the third time in four seasons and Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge on April 26 will likely to be a title decider.