Arsenal 2-2 Chelsea: Superb late Bellerin strike sees London pride shared
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A cracking late goal from Hector Bellerin rescued a point for Arsenal after Marcos Alonso looked to have won the game for visitors Chelsea with an 85 minute finish.
The Gunners had earlier gone 1-0 up on 63 minutes through a superb left-footed strike by the impressive Jack Wilshere. However there was controversy four minutes later when Bellerin was harshly judged to have fouled Eden Hazard in the box.
Referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot as Hazard made a full recovery from his histrionics to slot home the spot-kick.
Arsenal’s busy festival period took its toll on the squad as Laurent Koscielny was ruled out, Nacho Monreal was missing while Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud and long-term absentee Santi Cazorla were never in contention.
Chelsea had no fresh injury concerns, with rested duo Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas returning to the starting line-up after their 5-0 trouncing of Stoke City on Saturday.
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Defender David Luiz – who Wenger reportedly turned down signing after the Brazilian fell out with boss Antonio Conte - is close to returning from a knee injury but the game in North London came too soon for him.
There were more than a few empty seats at kick-off. It was hard to tell whether it was apathy or resentment and frustration with Wenger, though it could well have been both.
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With Arsenal triumphing over Chelsea in the previous three matches out of the last four, including the FA Cup Final and Charity Shield in 2017, and a memorable 3-0 thumping in September 2016, hopes were high of another win against their West London rivals.
Arsenal played with three centre-backs in Rob Holding, Calum Chambers and Shkodran Mustafi with Hector Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles performing as wing-backs.
Jack Wilshere paired up with Granit Xhaka as the defensive midfield pairing with Mesut Ozil passed fit, teaming-up with Alexis Sanchez with Alexandre Lacazette up top.
It was interesting to note Wilshere posted a moving Instagram message on New Year’s Day, his 26th birthday, reflecting on what difference a year makes.
For 12 months previously he was stationed in the stands at the Vitality Stadium, a helpless spectator watching the ridiculous 3-3 draw unfold between his beloved Arsenal and his loan side Bournemouth. As he admitted in the post he was unsure whether he would ever play for Arsenal again – or even what his future held.
Fast forward to January, 3, 2018 he was at the heart of most Gunners attacks for Wenger’s men.
Of course, his future is still undecided – and will be until he signs a new contract – but having played six league matches on the bounce, his best run for four years he is fit and firing.
His side’s first opportunity came when N’Golo Kante – and what a player he is – had been adjudged to have tripped Lacazette 25 yards from goal.
Sanchez, fully recovered form his bout of selfishness in time for the transfer window struck the ball firmly into the wall, deflecting behind off Gary Cahill, as the resulting corner came to nothing.
Chelsea could and should have gone in front on 14 minutes from what was essentially a long ball from Victor Moses stationed on the right flank.
The trio of centre-backs were caught in no-mans land unsure whether to push forward and drop back with Chambers actually appearing to angle his chase towards the corner flag before adjusting his course.
Former Real Madrid forward Alvaro Morato took the ball on well enough but when confronted with Petr Cech narrowing the angle opened his chest up.
For Arsenal fans to see a forward bearing down on goal before adjusting his body angle brought back so many memories of Ian Wright and Thierry Henry. Fortunately for the home support £60million isn’t what it used to be and Morata’s miserable effort flew wide without the expected curl.
Three minutes later Ozil and Sanchez linked-up for the wantaway Chilean’s shot to hit both posts before Courtois gathered gratefully.
The Chelsea keeper then performed a superb left-handed save low down after Lacazette turned neatly in the box as Arsenal showed they were up for the fight.
However the moment of the match in the first half for this observer was watching N’Golo Kante – a what a player he is – sprint back fully 30 yards until he was in a position to jockey Ozil who was on the ball, before executing a superbly timed tackled to win the ball. Yet one couldn’t help asking where was Arsenal’s scouting system when he was in Normandy playing for Boulogne and Caen?
The second half opened with a good double save from Cech, first from Hazard with his feet, invoking the spirit of Pat Jennings, before showing good agility and anticipation to push away Alonso’s header moments later.
But where oh where was the Arsenal defence?
Home fans were then treated to an excellent move after Wilshere, Ozil and Sanchez combined to set up Lacazette, whose close range shot was blocked by Courtois.
Slick passing, intelligent movement and unsatisfactory finishing in a nutshell.
Another move that was full of slick interchanges led to a goal on 63 minutes after a driving run by Sanchez saw the ball fall to Wilshere, who blasted the ball left-footed into the roof of the net past Courtois at his near post.
The joy unleashed after the emphatic strike was a sight to behold as Wilshere released a primal scream that came from deep inside – stirring from frustration at his injuries and failure to turn his world class talent from potential to fulfilment.
Sadly the joy was short-lived after referee Anthony Taylor awarded a penalty to Chelsea after minimal contact between Hazard and Bellerin in the box prompted a dramatic fall to the ground from the attacker. The decision was to send Wenger furious into his post-match interviews, calling Taylor’s call ‘farcical’.
However, Hazard miraculously recovered to send Cech the wrong way from the spot to make it 1-1.
Morata then proved £60 million isn’t an awful lot of money in football these days as he wasted another chance, this time after being pushed wide by Chambers before dinking a shot wide of Cech’s goal.
However with six minutes remaining Chelsea substitute Davide Zappacosta twisted and turned out on the left flank before firing a powerful low cross into the box for Alonso to slot home from close range to make it 2-1.
The Chelsea fans celebrated wildly but that was without reckoning on Bellerin’s late equaliser with only seconds remaining saving a point – and some London pride in this fiercely-fought derby. There was still drama to come as Antonio Rudiger fired the ball at the bar moments after the restart. Wenger wryly, yet perhaps insensitively said he would have committed suicide had it gone in.
But as referee Taylor blew for full-time with both sides earning a point, you couldn’t help feeling with Manchester City so far ahead it was a nothing more than a case of two bald men fighting over a comb.