Mar 242008

Chelsea 2 (73, 82) Arsenal 1 (Sagna 59)

A day that started badly for both Chelsea and Arsenal, with United recording an overly comfortably win against a poor Liverpool, became the worst possible one for Arsenal as Chelsea came from behind to steal a victory thanks for a typically powerful performance. The frustrating thing is that it could and should have been so much different.

After largely controlling a first half devoid of many chances, and in fact short of the bite you would have expected of the fixture, the second half began with Arsenal on top. Throughout, Chelsea were creating half chances with one long ball, contrasting wildly with Arsenal doing the same after twenty passes. It was neat, but generally fell down at the last minute. You felt a goal could come at either end.

And then it happened. Chelsea had looked surprisingly vulnerable from set pieces, and their setup for a corner on the hour was nothing short of appalling – no-one on the near post and Cudicini way too close to his far post, Sagna was able to steal in and head the ball into the unguarded corner. It was a goal they never would’ve conceded under Mourinho, but what a moment for the man who must surely be the right back of the season in his debut year.

There were only two worries. One was Eboue, who had been booked after four minutes for charging a free kick down way too early, and spent the rest of the match seemingly unaware of the tightrope he was walking, and the second was Didier Drogba, who always give our defence nightmares, with or without Senderos.

The former calmed his act in the last half an hour, but the latter turned destroyer. A(nother) long ball over the top caused confusion, and the eventual ricochet fell kindly to Drogba, who smashed home from the edge of the area. Yes, players were offside from the original hoof, but you’ll never hear me complain about that – in the time it would’ve taken the linesman to turn his head from the passer (if you can call it that) to Anelka and co was probably enough for them to get back in line, and caused enough doubt in his mind to keep his flag down. The rule is that if he is in doubt, he must not flag for offside, and while that’s frustrating at a time when we are getting goals wrongly ruled out, it happens and cannot be used as an excuse.

Fractionally offside should almost always be called onside because of the doubt, and the minute Sky get out their lines and slow motion replays, you know there will have been doubt.

The reality is that after the long ball, as with after the long ball for the Boro goal last week, the defending wasn’t good enough, although Clichy was unlucky to slip when he was in a position to block the shot.

Back on level terms, Chelsea sparked into life, and you had that horrible feeling they would pinch it. That fear came to fruition when Anelka flicked a free kick on to Drogba, who finished past the despairing Almunia. The keeper has taken some criticism early in the analysis, but he had no time to react, and it was one of those moments where you sometimes pull off a fantastic save, and on other occasions don’t quite get your hand in the right position. Unfortunately, the ball spun off the top of his hands and into the corner. He shouldn’t be blamed when it would’ve been a excellent save. He isn’t suddenly a liability, as some would have you believe.

After that, there was no coming back, despite best intentions. To be honest, a draw would’ve been the fair result, but that would still have only suited United. As it stands, Chelsea move into second, five points off the lead, while we sit a further point back.

To win the league now, we have to win at Old Trafford, and hope Chelsea and someone else stop their progress. But United are picking up steam at the right time in the season, and I’d be surprised to see them drop seven more points now. I think the title is theirs, it is certainly theirs to lose.

But that doesn’t end our season, it doesn’t even end our league season. We have two targets – first to overhaul Chelsea and get second place back to avoid a qualification round for the Champions League next season, and second to pick up the maximum points just in case United get the wobbles. What would be a disaster is for that to happen and us not take advantage.

And of course, there’s the Champions League, and with Liverpool so woeful today (even before the sending off), we have to fancy our chances. The bonus would be a chance to avenge today against Chelsea in the semis, who would have to play us either side of their crucial match against United. Can they challenge on both fronts?

Today was as bad as it could’ve been. Is it distressing to see us now six points off the pace when we were five points up only a month ago? Of course. Does this mean the season has been a failure, and indeed, the players are failures? Absolutely not.

There is always tomorrow.

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