The media may be reporting that dark and sinister forces are trying to ban the traditions that underpin Christmas, but it’s good to see that the sports journalists are having none of it. Yesterday they reported gleefully that a Ruud ‘n’ Roo powered Manchester Utd. were breathing down our necks; yes, the title race is back on! This morning in true pantomime style the headlines brayed “Ooooh no it isn’t!” following our first League win at Highbury in fifteen years. The manner in which we achieved it was magnificent; Arsenal were out-muscled, out-thought and outplayed for much of the game. The “Arsene knows” mantra chanted by Arsenal fans has a different ring to it today; one thing the Frenchman certainly knows now is that the phrase ‘rebuilding process’ no longer applies to just the stadium in which his team plays.
If Sir Alex was putting up his Christmas decorations yesterday, he would have had the kind of afternoon that is punctuated by a frustrating search through several dozen tree lights to find the sole broken bulb. His weekend started with a relatively simple trip to Villa Park, with a difficult visit to Highbury for Chelsea a day later. Come Saturday afternoon the gap was down to six points; the Scotsman was smiling to himself and dusting down his well-thumbed copy of “101 Greatest Football Mind Games” with which to taunt his favourite Portuguese. By Sunday evening, the nine point gap had been restored. The fairy atop of the Ferguson family Christmas tree will surely be wincing and removing deeply set pine needles from her nether regions until well into the New Year.
The opening twenty minutes saw the Blues give Arsenal a pummeling that is usually reserved for the team visiting Highbury. Having failed to capitalise on our early dominance proceedings almost took a typical turn when Henry lost Carvalho and flicked the ball past Cech, only to see it come back off the post. Within minutes came the game’s most controversial moment (there were plenty to choose from); van Persie’s strike was disallowed with Henry, several yards ahead of play and in the box being flagged for offside. The debate has raged ever since, highlighting how open to interpretation the current rule is; had Henry continued to walk away from goal rather than turn towards it the outcome may have been entirely different.
Arsenal’s high line and harrying of Makelele, Lampard and Essien in midfield led to openings that both Robben and Drogba were able to exploit with their pace. The latter was twice felled, first by a furtive tug on his shirt by Lehmann and then by Senderos, the first of the Swiss defender’s two offences both of which Jose believed warranted red cards. With half time looming Robben finally broke free of the offside trap, running unhindered onto an intelligent Drogba pass and calmly rolling the ball past Lehmann. 1-0, with the added bonus that our twinkle-toed Dutchman is finally starting to look like the player he was before that night at Ewood Park last February.
Man of the moment Essien spent much of game being harangued by both the Arsenal players and the Highbury crowd, his role as pantomime villain for the festive season now firmly secured. The outstretched elbow on van Persie was the only offence of the day really worthy of punishment; the other incidents being merely questionable at worst. Lauren’s cod-theatrical panto dame “Not my face!” antics in reaction to an elbow in the chest added some fuel to the fire of speculation that the Bison was a target in terms of being a sending off waiting to happen. The inescapable fact is that the Ghana international is fast becoming a marked man; he will do well not to receive his marching orders for whatever reason at some point in the not-too-distant future.
As incident followed incident and the second half wore on, the game looked to be heading towards a tense finish all too familiar to Chelsea fans. Pires and Bergkamp were introduced with twenty minutes to go to give the solid-looking Chelsea backline more of a test. Within minutes of their introduction came the game’s second goal; thankfully for the Blues it was the type of gift that usually appears under a tree on December 25th. Sam, a four and a half year old acquaintance of this columnist returned from a performance of ‘Cinderella’ yesterday afternoon knowing why large crowds of people shout “He’s behind you!” at this time of year. Lauren, a professional footballer some twenty years plus his senior has yet to work out this particularly British seasonal tradition. His dawdling over a relatively easy ball gifted possession to Joe Cole who evaded Campbell’s last-ditch tackle and curled a low drive beyond Lehmann. 2-0 and bar a brilliant save from Cole by the German keeper and Robben’s luck deserting him it could have been more. Despite the odd nervy moment late on, with both Pires and Bergkamp forcing Cech into action the game ended along with the North Londoners’ fading title hopes and an unwanted record. John Bumstead finally lost his crown as the last man to score a Chelsea league winner at Highbury; way back in March 1990 when the name Thatcher was associated with politics and attempts to hold together a crumbling empire rather than the art of jungle dwelling and eating pigs’ testicles. It had been a long time coming but was well worth the wait; the Blues in the Clock End in full agreement as they mocked the departing Gooners with chants of “Your season’s over…”, a favourite usually reserved for midwinter wins over Spurs. How times change.
After another bout of verbal sparring and the lack of post-match pleasantries, the only festive greetings likely to be exchanged between Jose and Arsene this year are of the Shane and Kirsty “You scumbag / you maggot / you cheap lousy faggot” variety. The Arsenal manager now faces an FA probe for his post-match comments about the loyalty of the officials; part of “the Chelsea team” in his considered opinion. Many would certainly agree with him that Rob Styles had a poor game. Chelsea v. Arsenal fixtures have generally been played in good spirits in recent seasons; Styles’s failure to stamp his authority on the game when things became fractious was both disappointing and amateurish. The fact that this was the first time he had been awarded this prestigious fixture didn’t come as a surprise on the basis of his performance. As well as his frosty exchanges with the officials, Wenger is now barely on speaking terms with both Mourinho and Ferguson. Both managers certainly have their quirks, but one wonders whether the Frenchman might ask “Is it me?” during the long dark nights of the soul which are sure to follow this sobering result.
Arsenal’s problems are multiplying at an alarming rate; three League defeats in a row for the first time in over ten years, a failure to score in four successive games and glaring holes in both defence and midfield. One of the most obvious faults of the current side is the lack of leadership; Wenger’s insistence that Henry is the right man for the captain’s armband looks plain wrong on yesterday’s evidence. An incredible player he may be but whilst he looks truly inspiring when Arsenal are 2-0 up, his booking for a petulant kick at Carvalho suggests that he is not the man to raise the spirits of his team-mates when the scoreline is reversed. Wenger will know that being out of the title race by mid-December is potentially fatal when you are trying to persuade your best player to stay and grace a (very expensive) new ground next season.
And so we approach Christmas with the following rather interesting scenarios. Liverpool are apparently not the best team in the world, despite having 345% of the possession, 186 shots on goal and 26 disallowed strikes (approximately, Â© Rafa Benitez and the Red Scouse masses) in the World Club Championship final. Sir Alex now has a face like a boy who thought he was going to unwrap a Scalextrix set on Christmas Day, only to find that his lone present is a badly hand-knitted jumper from a distant mad Auntie. Arsene faces something of a nightmare before Christmas with his team sitting in eighth place, some twenty points off the top spot and surrounded by the likes of Wigan, Manchester City, West Ham and Bolton all snapping away at the European places on offer. And Chelsea? We sit on top of the heap as we did at this time last year with one eye and possibly one hand on another Premiership title. The team is finding form; Terry is looking imperious, Makelele is back and Robben is frightening defences again. Then there is the mouthwatering prospect of a Champions League rematch against Barcelona in the New Year. It could just be the festive spirit influencing me but for the moment, it’s a wonderful life.