“You don’t know what you’re doing.” – Perhaps it’s the first time a crowd has sung that to itself as Avram Grant made two substitutions to turn this thriller from defeat into a victory and push us up to second place.
When Makelele and Ballack were replaced by Belletti and Anelka 20 minutes from the end and with us down by a goal, the always-there dissatisfaction with our manager rang around the Bridge. It didn’t help Grant that neither of the replaced players looked best pleased.
Of course, it’s possible to argue we were in the position we were in because we started with Essien at right back, a move often favoured by Jose, but dangerous against an Arsenal attack whose movement could beweilder a seasoned fullback. That Essien was confused was obvious and we were fortunate that Carvalho in particular moved over to snuff the danger on our right side as Essien left acres of space behind him for Arsenal to exploit.
Didier Drogba has always been the scourge of Arsenal and so it proved again here after a first half in which he passed up two great chances to score. Instead of his usual patsy Senderos to boss around, he had our old boy William Gallas to contend with. That didn’t make much of a difference as the Ivorian invariably got a head or chest to every ball pumped forward. This is what we had been missing for much of the season.
At half time the game was evenly balanced with each team pointing to missed chances and spells of dominance. This was not a Liverpool 0-0 match because you knew one of the teams was going to score. When Sagna got in front of Lampard at a corner to head in at the near post, you thought briefly Arsenal could run away with this, catching us on the counter-attack as we pushed forward. Instead, we continued to create chances and miss them, the worst being Ashley Cole’s feeble header when unmarked at the far post.
Then came the substitutions and the crowd chant … and the explosion of relief when Drogba smashed a loose ball in the area past Almunia, who had looked very good. It was now one-way traffic and Anelka pulled a decent chance wide of the post before Drogba rammed in an Anelka header. It could have been a hattrick shortly afterwards but Almunia made a brilliant save to push the ball around the post.
Arsenal made their substitutions but with Terry and Carvalho immense at the back, we weren’t in trouble despite five minutes of added time. Now we’re in second place, five points back of Manure. The odds are long, but Manure will be less happy with us chasing them than the fading Arsenal.
As for Grant, he has silenced the doubters for now. Silenced, but not converted.
CUDICINI – 6. Didn’t have any really tough saves to make and is entitled to have expected his defenders to get to the near post header first. Still, that’s four set piece goals againt in the last two games.
ESSIEN – 5. As a right back, he would get 3 or 4, but made more of a mark in midfield without really convincing that he’s over his blahs.
CARVALHO – 8.5. Magnificent performance. Can’t remember him putting a foot wrong. He and Terry shut down Adebayor and anyone else who tried to come through the middle.
TERRY – 8.5. If Capello didn’t see an England captain in this performance, then he’s a muppet. And no one can take shots against his behaviour in a highly charged atmosphere. Read the game brilliantly and only once was forced to expose himself to Adebayor’s pace.
A. COLE – 7. Kept the scowl off his face and concentrated on football, bombing forward all game and doing the job defensively.
MAKELELE – 6.5. He’s been encouraged to be more creative with the ball, which is good, and bad. Several times was guilty of losing the ball in dangerous positions, though Arsenal were never able to exploit the breaks mainly because Van Persie is clearly not match fit.
BALLACK – 6. Got into some good positions in the box during a first half in which Lampard was invisible, without ever catching the ball correctly. Arsenal’s speed through midfield often exposed his lack of pace.
LAMPARD – 6.5 Could never get into the game in the first half, but increasingly showed up in attack as we tried to come back from one down. His lacklustre first half does make you wonder about how happy he is playing with Ballack.
J.COLE – 7. Not the influence of the past few games, but still worried Arsenal enough. He was the variant to the direct approach to Drogba.
KALOU – 6.5. Air kicked a great chance in the first half and struggled to make a mark. But like Cole, he has the skills to open the tightest defence and helped stretch Arsenal.
DROGBA – 9. The great thing about being a striker is that you can amateurishly knee away a one on one with the goalie one minute and be hero by the end of the game. Yet he was much more than our goalscorer. Long passes from defence were turned into dangerous attacking moves because he won most of those balls. The Arsenal defence started to stand off him, allowing him to turn defence into attack in an instant. If he can remain as motivated for the rest of the season, we are in with a chance.
BELLETTI (for Makelele, 70 mins) – 6.5. His role was to put in better crosses from the wings than we had been getting and he did that.
ANELKA (for Ballack, 70 mins) – 7. For 18 minutes we saw him paired with Drogba in the centre and they caused havoc. Let’s see them together again.
MIKEL (for J. Cole, 88 mins) – n/a. Reinforcement in front of Terry and Carvalho and comfortably held out against Arsenal until the final whistle.