London. — Arsenal missed their chance to go back to the top of the Premier League after being forced to play with 10 men for much of the game against London rivals Chelsea yesterday.
Defender Per Mertesacker was sent off in the first 20 minutes for a foul on Diego Costa, who scored the only goal shortly afterwards from a cross by Branislav Ivanovic.
The 1-0 result preserved the defending champions’ unbeaten record under experienced Dutchman Guus Hiddink, who took over as interim manager last month following Jose Mourinho’s sacking. Chelsea moved up to 13th, while Arsenal were left in third place, level on points with Manchester City but three behind leaders Leicester City.
The result was familiar. A Chelsea win. These teams have met 27 times competitively in 12 seasons and this was Chelsea’s 16th win, with seven draws. The last 12 goals, in league fixtures, have belonged to Chelsea too. Do Arsenal have the nerve to win the title this season? They certainly don’t have the steel to beat Chelsea.
Not many teams will drop six points to them this season, but Arsenal have. And while they curse bad luck and Costa’s dark side for the defeat at Stamford Bridge, the buck stops with the home team here.
Per Mertesacker made a dreadful decision leading to his dismissal and Arsenal barely managed a shot at goal. Cesc Fabregas ran the game in midfield, aided as ever by the tireless, Willian and was unfortunate not to win a penalty when bodychecked by Laurent Koscielny after a beautiful run in the second half. That Nemanja Matic gave away a foul, and was booked, for an identical challenge on Alexis Sanchez in midfield soon after shows the inconsistency.
True, Arsenal were down to 10 for 71 minutes of the match but, even handicapped, they knew what they had to do after half-time and disappointed. Their best chances were scrappy, scrambles with opportunity coming by fortuitous deflection rather than invention. Leicester will have looked at this with quiet satisfaction. Everyone thought they would be the ones that blinked first.
Petr Cech is the best goalkeeper around these parts since David Seaman. So, knowing that, why didn’t Per Mertesacker trust him to deal with Diego Costa, even one on one?
When a quite lovely pass put Costa through after 19 minutes, Mertesacker’s lack of pace left him floundering. At that point, he had a choice. Lunge, risk missing his tackle, and play the inevitable game of red card roulette, or chase Costa, applying as much pressure as possible and hope that Cech can do the rest. The worst that could happen would be that Arsenal went a goal down, against a team that started the day in 14th place, and with 70 minutes to retrieve the game. Instead, Mertesacker pressed the doomsday button.
As usual, when things happen in a rush, there was the debate about whether Costa was taken out, clipped or merely fell over taking evasive action. It really doesn’t matter. Mertesacker’s tackle was wild and did not allow Costa to continue his run on goal. Of course, the same could be said of a challenge made by Nicolas Otamendi on Michail Antonio during Manchester City’s match with West Ham on Saturday, and that was only judged to be a yellow card.
This time, Clattenburg did the right thing. Mertesacker was dismissed and the angry reaction of the locals probably had more to do with the involvement of bogeyman Costa than any true sense of injustice. Had it been the other way around, they would have been howling for a straight red.
It was the seventh time in the Premier League that an Arsenal player had been sent off against Chelsea — not including Gabriel’s red at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, later rescinded. They have a way of getting under red skins and, momentarily, Arsenal lost their way. Arsene Wenger’s reaction to the calamity — removing Olivier Giroud for a centre half, Gabriel, was not well received, and Gabriel’s first involvement was, frankly, calamitous.
He had been on the pitch barely a minute when Branislav Ivanovic whipped in a cross from the right, which Costa met at the near post, getting across Gabriel, and forcing the ball into the net.
He is back to his best, no doubt of that, recording more goals and assists under Guus Hiddink than he did in 16 league games with Jose Mourinho this season. Make of that what you will. Reuters/Mailonline.