Chelsea 0-0 Arsenal: Honours even in hard-fought Carabao Cup semi-final first leg London derby but fears raised over Wilshere injury
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It was honours even in the first leg of the Carbao Cup semi-final first leg after a passionate London derby saw Arsenal draw 0-0 with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening.
Chelsea had the upper hand for long periods of the game but Antonio Conte’s side could not find a way past the resolute Gunners whose main concern was the severity of Jack Wilshere’s injury which caused him to be substituted for Mohamed Elneny on 57 minutes.
Arsenal reverted to a strong team after the 4-2 FA Cup humiliation at the hands of Championship side Nottingham Forest on Sunday.
Granit Xhaka recovered from a groin issue to start while Shkodran Mustafi also returned to the first XI. Jack Wilshere was named captain, while Alex Iwobi was handed another start despite Arsene Wenger admitting he would fine the Nigerian international for a late-night transgression.
Wantaway Chilean Alexis Sanchez was on the bench along with Per Mertesacker who was desperately disappointing at the weekend despite scoring.
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New boy Konstantinos Mavroponas was named as one of the substitutes, along with Theo Walcott, who is rumoured to be on his way back to former club Southampton while Elneny dropped to the bench after an ineffectual display in the heart of midfield against Forest.
Chelsea forward Eden Hazard was fit to face the visitors after recovering from a calf injury but new £15m signing Ross Barkley is not available as he is still recovering from hamstring surgery.
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Arsenal boss Wenger continued his touchline ban – slumming it with a seat in the press box – while it was announced Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology would be used in both legs of the semi-final and the final.
The Gunners lined up with a three at the back, with Mustafi in the middle of the trio, Rob Holding on the left and Calum Chambers on the right while Ainsley Maitland-Niles appeared on the left flank and Hector Bellerin on the right as wing-backs.
Xhaka and Wilshere formed the defensive midfield pairing as Alex Iwobi, and Danny Welbeck flanked Alexandre Lacazette as the forward trident in a 3-4-2-1 formation which could just as easily be described as 3-4-3. As the legendary Forest boss Brian Clough once said, formations don’t lose you games players do.
Chelsea started the brighter side with the lively Hazard feeding Alvaro Morata in the early stages. The £60 million purchase from Real Madrid likes to play off the shoulder of the last man so it was imperative the Gunners backline closed down the angles for Hazard to play him in.
It was also important for the visitors to press the 21-year-old former Brondy central defender Andreas Christensen from the top, in order to deny him time and space to build attacks from the heart of Conte’s back three.
Hazard was in an impish mood, at one point beating Wilshere on the touchline before nutmegging Xhaka who tripped him, as much for the impudence as necessity.
However on 21 minutes Lacazette was fed by Wilshere with a simple ball over the top. Everyone present seemed to stop for a moment, to check it was onside, and secondly to let such a simple ploy sink in. The acres of space seemed to startle the former Lyon man as he hurried as shot from the edge of the area when he could have easily strode on, with his blazing volley high and wide reflecting his shock as much as his wastefulness.
Moments later Victor Moses cut inside before firing a low shot that David Opsina gathered at the second attempt.
Marcos Alonso then fired across goal as Morata narrowly failed to make contact in the box, following a driving run.
The ball was recycled and N’Golo Kante had a shot which Ospina again stopped, although not cleanly, even if the ball was eventually cleared to ease Arsenal’s discomfort.
Iwobi then pounced on the Chelsea defence not clearing their lines, as he fired in a low shot from the margins of the 18-yard box which Thibaut Courtois parried brilliantly with strong wrists. There was controversy when Maitland-Niles was felled in the box – with arguably more contact and force than Bellerin on Hazard during the 2-2 last week. However referee Martin Atkinson disagreed after employing VAR, rightly declining to award a spot-kick.
There was a lively start after the interval culminating in the 54th minute after a Fabregas corner was flicked on by Alonso only for the ball to hit Morata and trickle wide.
However the most significant moment occurred three minutes later when the influential Wilshere appeared to pick up a knock on his left ankle attempting to block a cross from Danny Drinkwater.
Wenger later said it was his ‘good ankle’ and did not seem concerned it was a serious injury, although he did concede on being pressed it was a ligament injury.
Given the lack of information which emerged from the club during Santi Cazorla’s career-threatening ankle injury experienced Wenger observers won’t be holding their breath in expectation of Wilshere to play in the next but one match against Crystal Palace at the Emirates after the Frenchman already ruled the increasingly-impressive midfielder out of the trip to Bournemouth.
Seconds after the Hitchin-reared England international went down, boss for the night Steve Bould ,immediately leapt from the dugout to recall Elneny who had been warming up in the far corner, motioning for him to get changed to come on.
It was sad to see Wilshere walk off, as every Arsenal fan in the away end and the millions more watching on television hoped and wished it was only a minor issue. However, with all that he has been through you always fear the worst. To lose the 26-year-old midfielder for a long spell now would be hugely damaging for Arsenal – and Wenger.
There were boos coming from the Arsenal section when Lacazette was replaced by wantaway Sanchez on 67 minutes. However this observer felt they were for the decision to remove the Frenchman from the game than any inherent anti-Sanchez feeling.
As the game progressed Chelsea pushed Arsenal deeper and deeper, fed by the excellent Kante promptings as Moses pushed further up to supplement attacks along the visitors left flank.
However when Conte withdrew Hazard with seven minutes to go but sides opted to take the goalless draw on offer and make it winners takes all in the second leg, as for the second time this season the Blues and the Gunners drew 0-0 in West London.
There was even time for Atkinson to employ VAR again after Fabregas went down under a challenge from Welbeck on 89 minutes. However the technology correctly ruled it was not a penalty before he blew for full-time on this absorbing clash.
Whatever you’re doing on January 24 make sure it involves watching Arsenal against Chelsea at the Emirates.
For it promises to be a cracker.