Arsenal beaten by Chelsea, but not bullied

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0

Drogba 39, Alex 85

Goals late in each half by Didier Drogba and Alex were enough for Chelsea to see off the challenge of an Arsenal side who took the fight to the champions and dominated large swathes of possession, but too often lacked a cutting edge when it mattered most.

Given the number of senior players absent through injury, Arsène Wenger fielded his strongest available eleven after Tuesday’s hard-fought win in Belgrade, with Abou Diaby returning to midfield to join Jack Wilshere and Alex Song, and Samir Nasri restored up front to support Marouane Chamakh and Andrey Arshavin. Gaël Clichy also returned at left back, with Lukasz Fabianski continuing to deputise for the injured Manuel Almunia.

Unlike their last two games against West Brom and Partizan, Arsenal flew straight out of the traps. Inside 30 seconds, Bacary Sagna sent a dangerous cross into the Chelsea box and Chamakh’s header was deflected behind. From the resultant corner, Laurent Koscielny somehow headed over from two yards out.

The visitors continued to create chances throughout the first half without converting any of them. Arshavin tested Petr Cech with a good effort, while Nasri fired a left-footed curler narrowly wide. In response, Chelsea created few openings, only once testing Fabianski as the Polish keeper got down well to beat away a Drogba shot at his near post.

Didier Drogba has 13 goals in his last 11 games against Arsenal

Even though it came against the run of play, when the opening goal arrived six minutes before half-time there was a certain air of inevitability about it. Ramires won possession in midfield and fed a speeding Ashley Cole, who delivered a teasing ball across the six-yard box which Drogba managed to flick with his heel, steering the ball past Fabianksi. It was the Ivorian striker’s 13th goal in his last 11 games against Arsenal.

The goal seemed to knock some of the stuffing out of Arsenal, although they continued to press with increasing urgency throughout the second half. Chamakh had probably the best chance, steering a header narrowly wide under pressure from Drogba, while Diaby saw his shot deflected wide with Cech beaten. But there is no better team in the Premier League at defending a one-goal lead than the champions, who have yet to concede at Stamford Bridge and have let in only two goals in total. The longer the game went on, the more likely it became that they would find a second goal on the break. With five minutes left Nicolas Anelka, who had already missed a gilt-edged chance when one-on-one with Fabianksi, was fouled by Koscielny outside the box. Drogba deferred to Alex, who drilled in a pile-driver of a shot through a gap in the wall vacated by Florent Malouda, and although the keeper did well to get fingertips to it he could not prevent it from going in.

And that was that. Arsenal had nothing to show from a game which they had shaded in many respects. Too often in the final third of the pitch passes had gone astray, balls had been miscontrolled and shots had lacked accuracy or pace. It is a familiar refrain for Arsenal fans to listen to, and no doubt many are bemoaning yet another defeat at the hands of a fellow title contender.

But there were signs of encouragement – albeit no points – to take away from this encounter. Last season, Arsenal were totally outplayed and outmuscled both home and away, as Chelsea bullied their way to 3-0 and 2-0 wins which were more dominant than the scorelines suggest. Today Arsenal had the better of long periods of the game but lacked the ruthlessness, composure and confidence in front of goal which the reigning champions have in abundance. Were they beaten today? Yes. Were they outplayed? No. Nor were they bullied. Jack Wilshere played his offensive game while also being willing to chase back and stick his foot in against the more powerful Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel. Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci, though not error-free, stood up and were counted. And though Chamakh did not have one of his best games, he more than held his own in the air against the strength of John Terry and Alex.

It could even be argued that the result of the game might have been different had Arsenal not been missing the spine of their side – Thomas Vermaelen, captain Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie – as well as Theo Walcott – it would be similar to Chelsea taking to the pitch without Terry, Frank Lampard, Drogba and Malouda. However, that is not really a valid excuse, particularly given that the eleven who did start carved out more than enough chances to have been ahead rather than behind at half-time. As Wenger himself said in his post-match press conference:

Today we had [the players] to win the game. No matter who was here, we had enough quality to win this game.

The issue was more that key attacking players such as Arshavin and Nasri, who have scored or assisted a huge proportion of Arsenal’s goals this season, chose a bad day to put in sub-par showings. Clichy, again, struggled. And neither Diaby nor Song were at their best defensively. In all phases of the game, Chelsea were just that little bit more efficient, more clinical. Were they the better side in terms of talent? No. Were they more ruthless? Absolutely, and that is a key ingredient of champions which Arsenal still lack when facing the other top sides. Nonetheless, it was still a market improvement on last season’s performances, even if today’s result was no different.

Wenger also saw the positives in his side’s performance, while acknowledging their deficiencies in the game’s key moments:

Chelsea finished with cramps because they had to run a lot, so I give credit to my team. But we have to be more clinical to win titles – we can’t lose a game like that. Their strikers were more clinical than ours and that made the difference because apart from that I believe Chelsea suffered a lot today. They were on the ropes for long periods in the game.

We had the chances today. When you have the chances we have today you need to score.

I feel sorry for my team because they had an outstanding attitude and an outstanding display. You can only congratulate them for that attitude. I feel sorry for the fact that they have not been rewarded but we live in a realistic world and when you don’t score and don’t take your chances then you don’t win big games.

There are many positives from the game because we dominated this game quite surprisingly in my opinion. We go home with zero points and if you look at the way we threw two points away at Sunderland last week and this week you see that despite our quality that is not enough. You want to be rewarded when you produce a game of that quality and when you go home with no points we have to analyse why and be more clinical. The basis is there, the collective team quality is there but we have to transform that into points.

With many players now departing on international duty, Arsenal’s next game is not until the home fixture against Birmingham on Saturday 16th. With Fabregas due back by then, and several others likely to be at least close to a return to first team action, there is every opportunity to make a fresh start and begin to redress the balance. There is no shame to losing narrowly to what is currently the best team overall in the Premier League – they are not the division’s top scorers and meanest defence for nothing – but there is also every reason to believe that Arsenal are not as far behind this season as they were last. That on its own is cause for some encouragement even though, with only one point from the last three games, it does not feel that way right now.


Thor thunders to victory to bring Road World Championships to spectacular end

In the early hours of this morning, Norway’s Thor Hushovd brought the 2010 UCI Road World Championships to a close by winning the elite men’s road race after six gruelling hours in the saddle over a tough, undulating 257 km course between Melbourne and Geelong which proved too much for many of the pure sprinters such as Britain’s Mark Cavendish.

Thor Hushovd wins the men's road race (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

The 257.2 km course proved to be much more difficult than was initially anticipated before the championships, playing into the hands of Classics men such as Philippe Gilbert and Hushovd who are able to both climb and sprint. Mark Cavendish, the world’s best pure sprinter for the past three years, had already abandoned by the time the decisive moment came on the final steep climb of Challambra Crescent with about 11 kilometres remaining. Belgium’s Björn Leukemans attacked the front of the lead group, launching teammate Gilbert – a double stage winner at last month’s Vuelta a España and the champion at the Amstel Gold classic earlier in the year – into a 14-second lead by the top of the climb. Behind him, a chase group of six formed, led by defending rainbow jersey Cadel Evans, as the sudden acceleration shattered the peloton into fragments. Hushovd had been unable to live with that initial burst, but as the group ahead battled to claw back Gilbert’s advantage (which reached a maximum of 21 seconds), he and about ten others clung on grimly and were eventually able to reintegrate as the Belgian was swallowed up with three kilometres to go.

In the final uphill sprint, Hushovd timed his attack perfectly. The 32-year old – nicknamed the ‘God of Thunder’ – held back patiently and only hit full gas in the final 100 metres as he swept past a tiring Matti Breschel to claim the rainbow jersey by nearly two bike lengths. Aussie Allan Davis was third, while Gilbert finished at the back of the lead group of 18 who were all credited with the same time.

Hushovd, the under-23 time trial champion back in 1998, was delighted to claim his first senior world title:

It is hard to understand that now I won at the Worlds. It’s a dream and sometimes I feel it’s an unreal dream. I’m speechless.

Of course, the last lap was really hard when Gilbert attacked but I think the wind was too strong out there. It was too hard to stay in front alone. I just told myself don’t make mistakes and don’t mess it up, I said to myself 100 times.

I think it was still a perfect race.

The organisers should be praised for setting a challenging road course featuring a number of short but sharp climbs that mitigated against a straightforward bunch sprint and provided considerable scope for small groups or individuals to launch dangerous attacks, keeping both the men’s and women’s races exciting and unpredictable throughout. Despite being overshadowed by the swathe of positive drugs tests during the last few days – in the space of 48 hours four Spanish riders, including three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, were reported to have provided positive doping tests – it has been an excellent championships, with lots of close and hard-fought racing.

Yesterday, Britain’s Olympic champion Nicole Cooke narrowly missed out on a medal after getting into an apparently decisive breakaway with Germany’s Judith Arndt in the final kilometres of a thrilling elite women’s road race, which featured several attacks and counter-attacks on the final loop of the Geelong circuit. As Cooke and Arndt jockeyed for position on the uphill straight, they were swallowed up in the closing metres by a small chasing pack led by Italy’s Giorgia Bronzini and Holland’s Marianne Vos. Cooke was unable to respond with her sprint in time, and finished a disappointed fourth. Time trial winner Emma Pooley featured in a number of speculative breakaways late on, but was unable to make any of them stick.

Despite disappointment in the two elite road races the British team have had a successful championships, winning gold and silver in the women’s and men’s time trials courtesy of strong rides by Pooley and David Millar, the latter beaten only by the incredible Fabian Cancellara, who claimed a record fourth rainbow jersey in the time trial discipline. Alex Dowsett, one of the favourites in the under-23 time trial, finished well down the field after swapping his time trial bike for a road version midway through the race.

Men’s under-23 time trial:

1.  Taylor Phinney (USA) 42: 50.29

2.  Luke Durbridge (AUS) + 1.90

3.  Marcel Kittel (GER) +24.01

31. Alex Dowsett (GBR) +3:25.19

Elite women’s time trial:

1.  Emma Pooley (GBR) 32: 48.44

2.  Judith Arndt (GER) + 15.17

3.  Linda Villumsen (NZL) + 15.80

Elite men’s time trial:

1.  Fabian Cancellara (SUI) 58: 09.19

2.  David Millar (GBR) + 1:02.75

3.  Tony Martin (GER) + 1:12.49

Men’s under-23 road race:

1.  Michael Matthews (AUS) 4:01: 23

2.  John Degenkolb (GER) same time

3.  Taylor Phinney (USA) s/t

11. Luke Rowe (GBR) s/t

56. Jonathan McEvoy (GBR) +1:04

Alex Dowsett (GBR) DNF

Andrew Fenn (GBR) DNF

Elite women’s road race:

1.  Giorgia Bronzini (ITA) 3:32:01

2.  Marianne Vos (NED) same time

3.  Emma Johansson (SWE) s/t

4.  Nicole Cooke (GBR) s/t

9. Lizzie Armitstead (GBR) +0:03

16. Sharon Laws (GBR) +0:03

20. Emma Pooley (GBR) +0:03

29. Catherine Williamson (GBR) +1:42

Lucy Martin (GBR) DNF

Katie Colclough (GBR) DNF

Elite men’s road race:

1. Thor Hushovd (NOR) 6:21:49

2. Matti Breschel (DEN) same time

3. Allan Davis (AUS) s/t

Mark Cavendish (GBR) DNF

David Millar (GBR) DNF

Jeremy Hunt (GBR) DNF

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