Chelsea drew 2-2 away at Arsenal in their first fixture of the calendar year. The gap between the two rivals remained at seven points, but Chelsea missed an opportunity to return to second in the Premier League table.
Storm Eleanor grabbed the headlines on the first Wednesday of 2018. The attention of the footballing world, though, was on the Emirates Stadium in north London for Chelsea’s biggest test of the festive period.
Chelsea were at full strength after a fortuitous piece of scheduling gave them a break after their mauling of Stoke City. Cesc Fabregas, Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’golo Kante formed the midfield, with the familiar duo of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata up top.
It was a quiet start. A deflected Alexis Sanchez free-kick was the first shot of note, which left Thibaut Courtois crossing fingers and toes as the ball sailed high.
A few moments later, Arsenal quickly broke to catch Chelsea off-guard. Mesut Ozil found space in the middle, and surged past Kante as Sanchez lofted a ball across the Chelsea box. It ended up well above the German, but was an early warning sign for the back three.
Calum Chambers then gifted Chelsea the best opening of the first 15 minutes. A long ball fell past the inexperienced centre-back, which Morata dribbled towards Petr Cech. The Spaniard got into the box, and tried to roll it past the former Blue. Instead, it dribbled well wide of the post.
It had a whiff of the Fernando Torres’ about it. Morata then had a near-miss from a cross. As pressure seemed to be building, the visitors got a ludicrously lucky break.
Alexis fired a shot at Courtois’ near post. The Belgian parried it onto said post, leading the ball to roll across the goal-line and hit the other upright. The goalkeeper then leapt on the ball and Sanchez was in sheer disbelief.
The hosts continued to have plenty of the ball in Chelsea’s half. Bakayoko struggled again, and Ozil was too often finding space. On one such occasion, Ozil found Alexandre Lacazette in the Chelsea box. The Frenchman managed to spin and force a strong save from Courtois low to his left.
When Chelsea did get the ball in Arsenal’s half, it was – as is now the norm – all about Hazard. A good chance, however, came without Hazard directly involved. Fabregas got the ball in the attacking third and did his thing. Bakayoko made a surging run down the middle, and the Spaniard slid it perfectly into his path. Cech had to pull off a good reflex save.
The Emirates slumped into a lull until the 37th minute. Of course, it began with a jinking Hazard run. It ended with a ballooned Marcos Alonso free-kick from 20-yards, but was a promising piece of attacking play for the visitors. Bakayoko had again got into a dangerous position, before he was fouled by the reckless Granit Xhaka.
The immediately following attack saw Ozil fire a shot just a yard past Courtois’ post from 25 yards or so.
Cesc Fabregas then received possibly the most ridiculous yellow card of the season for a superb tackle on Jack Wilshere. It cannot be appealed, which is just as ridiculous.
Soon after, he blazed a shot over from a sublime Hazard backheel. The magical Belgian tormented Arsenal whenever he received the ball, but this was something otherworldly. As he dribbled parallel to the goal, the Gunners’ defence followed, and were left writhing on the floor as the backheel trickled to Fabregas.
It was an entertaining nil-nil at half-time. Both teams had chances – though Arsenal were marginally the better side – leaving Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte with plenty of ponder.
There was a lethargic feel to the beginning of the second half. Chelsea had the share of the possession, and notched the first clear opportunity of the half. It was a trademark Fabregas through ball to Hazard, who drilled one from a slight angle goalwards, forcing Cech into a save with his foot.
The lethargy soon waned. The absence of any midfield saw both teams attack at regular intervals, and Lacazette found himself with a great chance. Courtois saved Chelsea again, though, as he rushed out to eliminate any chance.
Arsenal enjoyed a spell of dominance afterwards. Wilshere was lucky to stay on the pitch as he could have easily got a second yellow for a dive, and Conte opted to replace Victor Moses with Davide Zappacosta. The Nigerian had been far from his direct best, and had lost Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the defensive third at times.
As the clock ticked to 60, Arsenal were penning Chelsea in their box.
Eventually, Chelsea succumbed to the waves of red and white. Ozil was still allowed to play with freedom, and produced one of his best Arsenal performances.
The breakthrough came in the 63rd minute. The ball dropped to Wilshere just outside the width of the goal down the inside-left. A sliding, left-footed bullet exploded past Courtois at the near-post.
Chelsea were made to pay for a sloppy 10 minutes. In true superhero fashion, their talismanic Belgian delivered almost straight away.
A blocked dinked cross dropped in front of him after a mazy run. Hazard nipped in front of Hector Bellerin to win the ball, with the right-back then catching him. A penalty – a very soft one – was awarded. Hazard then smashed it into the bottom-left corner to make it 1-1.
Fabregas left to a pleasant Gunner applause and was replaced by Danny Drinkwater in the 70th minute.
The next 10 minutes drifted by. The game was mainly in Arsenal’s half, but Chelsea created little. Lacazette – who had played well despite failing to score – was substituted for Danny Welbeck. Soon after, Conte bizarrely took Hazard off for Willian.
Within seconds, it did not look so bizarre. Willian pinged a beautiful ball to Zappacosta, who tied Maitland-Niles in a knot, and drilled a low cross. Alonso arrived, and connected perfectly to make it 2-1. A goal manufactured by Conte.
Play inevitably flipped. Arsenal were on top from the kick-off that followed Chelsea’s second goal, with Wenger bringing on Theo Walcott for Calum Chambers.
An equaliser was just as inevitable. Arsenal left it until the 92nd minute, but it was a stunner from Hector Bellerin, who was 16 yards out when his right-instep sent it swerving into the top-left corner.
Chelsea wasted no time in launching another attack. Morata was (yes, again) through on goal. He (yes, again) hit it straight at Cech on the half-volley. The ball then fell to Zappacosta on the edge of the box, who smashed it against the bar.
That was the last meaningful attack of the match, and what a match it was. A magnificently entertaining start to 2018.
Player ratings: Courtois 9, Cahill 6, Azpilicueta 7, Christensen 8, Moses 5, Kante 7, Bakayoko 5, Fabregas 7, Alonso 7, Hazard 7, Morata 4.