February 21st, 2004 • 5:59 am
Another great day today for the Gunners in their quest to reclaim the Premiership crown after losing out to Manchester United in the second half of last year’s season.
Both teams were in action today with early kickoffs at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. And Chelsea started in style with an easy goal in the opening minute, the result of an uncharacteristic error in mid-field by Patrick Vieira. To Arsenal’s credit, after a few frantic minutes, they regained their composure and started to slowly build up steam. And soon enough a typically magisterial pass by Bergkamp found Vieira — of all people — in the box at the end of a great run. Even though he’s usually far from being a good finisher, he made no mistake this time and Arsenal were back on level terms.
Then an awful mistake by Chelsea keeper Neil Sullivan on an Arsenal corner left the goal mouth wide open and Edu slotted the rebound in with a strong finish. In the space of less than half an hour, Arsenal had reversed the course of their game against Chelsea yet again, after doing the exact same thing (albeit over 60 minutes) less than a week ago in the FA Cup.
It was a thrilling first half. The second half was much less entertaining, because Arsenal were very successful at closing the game and Chelsea were reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of Gudjohnsen for a second booking. (He had been booked in the first half for blatant diving in the Arsenal penalty area.) The second booking was perhaps harsh, but there is no doubt that the referee did the right thing in booking him for the dive in the first half, and the Icelandic striker knew he was walking on thin ice.
The sending off is not enough to justify Chelsea’s attitude in the second half, where the players appeared unable to create anything. With only a 1-goal advantage, it was never comfortable for the Gunners, but on the other hand they were never really threatened. Young Frenchman Clichy did well as a replacement for the injured Ashley Cole, and Jens Lehmann had a very good game in goal, with assured interventions on corners and the few dangerous moments created by Chelsea.
This home defeat puts Chelsea 9 points behind Arsenal and, while everything is still possible in theory, there would have to be a major collapse by the Gunners for them to lose this big advantage.
The day was made even better for Arsenal when Manchester United were held to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford by struggling Leeds. In truth, the draw was fully deserved. Manchester were quite sloppy in their passing and, while they created many opportunities, only a few of them were really threatening. The Leeds players performed heroically and fully deserved to get a point. The Silvestre injury in the first half was probably a blow to Manchester United’s defence, since his replacement Wes Brown is not really convincing these days.
The end result is that Arsenal are now 7 points clear of Manchester, and they are definitely the favourites to win the league this year now. Nothing has been won yet, of course, but considering that the two wins against Chelsea were achieved pretty much without Thierry Henry (he was only a shadow of himself today), the signs are really good at this point. Let’s hope that they can keep their concentration, put together a decent run in the final stages of the Champions’ League and in the FA Cup — and 2003-2004 could turn out to be a very good year indeed. Add to this the forthcoming Euro 2004 competition, where several key Arsenal players will be representing France, and, if you are a French support of Arsenal, you just have to be pretty excited these days.
Elsewhere, Manchester City finally got a win, away against high-flying (at the moment) Bolton, and huge sighs of relief can probably be heard today among City supporters and Kevin Keegan enthusiasts. They will, of course, need more than this one good result to get out of trouble, but at least they are scoring again these days, and that should help them a lot. Now, if only they could get a few home wins in a row at their new City of Manchester stadium…