I left the ground after this game feeling hugely relieved. Although it was only a score draw the difference between this match and Newcastle a few weeks ago was glaring. Indeed, for the first time this season, Claudio Ranieri’s team actually played like one. More than that, the Blues played with both a commitment and style that has not been seen at the Bridge for quite a while. Grounds for optimism? Absolutely.
In the pre-match programme, Ken Bates spent most of his column having a pop at the Arse with comments like we were the second most watched team on television worldwide and other such guff. He forgot to add that while we agree that Arsenal should be loathed more than a paedophile caught with his pants down in a nursery, the Gooners have finished higher in the league than us every year for the last six seasons. They are therefore the team to catch just as much as the red scum in the rainy wetlands of Manchester.
Direct from the kick-off Chelsea set about the Arse with full blooded commitment. Well organised, we pressed them high into their own half giving them precious little time on the ball. It is significant that Ranieri had recently been at Highbury to see the Gooners versus Leeds. Although Leeds won that afternoon the scoreline was flattering, with the Arse ripping the Leeds midfield to shreds during the first half. Ranieri attempted to avoid making the same mistake and the whole team was ordered to close down the Arsenal midfield with an urgency that had not been seen in our first two games.
This made all the difference and was in marked contrast to our displays under Gianluca Vialli. Without being disrespectful to our most successful ever manager, the fact remains that his teams were lazy without possession. Time and again, this website reviewed games for Sport First with the comments that while our players matched United’s for skill, they failed dismally when you compared the work rate between the two teams. Let’s face it, can you remember Di Matteo, Poyet or Flo tracking back? Exactly.
This game was different. Both Frank Lampard and Emmanuel Petit were superb in midfield and it was noticeable how the rest of the team supported them with a tireless work rate. Despite this, Arsenal showed their class early on and in the first minute Henry could have put the Gunners one up. With a fluid pass and move game, and with Henry especially dangerous, the Gooners created a number of chances that eventually saw them take the lead.
The goal was scrappy and after Ed de Goey had saved initially from Pires, Henry tucked the rebound away. Eagle-eyed supporters would have noticed John Terry throw his hands down in frustration, but he would have done well to remember that it was his careless clearance from the defence that led directly to the goal. I don’t care if he is the national under-21 captain and more English than pie and chips, it ain’t good enough. At this level small mistakes cost you games. Still, he’ll learn.
Rather than let our heads drop, the boys fought hard to get back into the game, and when Gianfranco Zola jinked his way into the box, Keown clipped his heels and our Italian ate some grass. To be fair, the penalty was harsh. Zola went down like a sniper had hit him. Still, who cares? Jimmy, predictably, rifled the penalty low into the far corner.
The second half, in terms of football quality, was poorer. Both teams had chances and when de Goey was called into action he responded with two great saves from Cole and Kanu. But it was referee Mike Riley’s decision to send off Hasselbaink that ended the game as a spectacle. The fact that it was hardly a right upper cut but more a case of handbags at three paces makes it all the more disappointing. Jimmy received the ball on the dugout touchline and with Keown cuddling him like a Koala, he wriggled free aggressively and Keown went down like he had just had a dodgy vindaloo from a street vendor in Calcutta. Red card, end of game. Later on, on the telly, it was clear that when Jimmy lifted his arm Keown did not flinch. It was when Jimmy connected with his shoulder that Keown fell.
Even with ten men we had chances to win it. Gronkjaer made a terrific run across the pitch and fed a beautifully weighted ball to Zola. Unfortunately, Zola muffed it and the ball ended up in the family section. Right near the death, a dangerous ball across the box saw Lampard stick his left peg out only to see the ball go agonisingly close. Given that in days gone by we would have put ten players behind the ball, Ranieri has to be applauded for keeping the same tactics which in the end nearly won us the game.
At the final whistle, there were very few reasons to be disappointed. The signs were there in abundance that if the players keep working this hard the rewards will eventually come. In addition, it would seem that the players are finally beginning to get to grips with Ranieri’s tactixs, which involves steady pressing and a high work rate allied to swift counterattacks. The future, at present, looks bright indeed.
PS: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and his mates got in their car, signed a few autographs and started to pull away. As his car got alongside the Arsenal team bus, Jimmy stopped, wound down the window and gave Keown the finger! About ten of us saw it and burst out laughing – fantastic!