Costa proves too clever again for angry Wenger
Striker benefits from Mertesacker’s madness to blow title race wide open
The sight of Petr Cech lifting three Arsenal players – Laurent Koscielny, Gabriel and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – off the turf after the final whistle summed it up. This was an encounter when Arsenal were floored; a damaging defeat and a real test of their character to see how they respond.
It was one of those games to which they are prone, also; one of those games when things conspired against them, when the wheels buckled beneath them, and just as they are on the brink of making an emphatic statement it is, cruelly, they who suffer the psychological blowout.
It will have hurt even more that it was Chelsea and Diego Costa who inflicted it. The striker has become Arsenal’s new nemesis, taking up the mantle from Didier Drogba who bullied and terrorised his way to 15 goals in 15 games against Arsenal. A consolation? At least Jose Mourinho was not sitting in the opposition dug-out.
It was not the only consolation. Arsenal are emphatically in this title race, just three points behind Leicester City, and they kept going despite being reduced to 10 men in the 18th minute. They welcomed back Alexis Sánchez from injury and Francis Coquelin has returned to training and will soon be ready to replace the far less disciplined Mathieu Flamini who was given the runaround by his friend Cesc Fabregas and also missed Arsenal’s three best chances. It was that kind of game.
It is just eight points from 18 for Arsenal and, although that does not look good, if this is their wobble it is not causing too much damage. Yet. But how they could have done with not losing this one as it is a result that re-opened wounds Arsène Wenger will not want to re-visit.
The statistics are bad. It is nine matches now since Arsenal beat Chelsea in the league; it is six matches since they even scored a goal against them. And Per Mertesacker’s red card was the fourth they have suffered in five matches against Chelsea.
It was a dismissal that provoked debate but looked the right call by referee Mark Clattenburg. Yes, Costa rolled and rolled and rolled but Mertesacker impeded his run, he denied a goal-scoring opportunity and he could have no complaints.
The Arsenal captain was exposed. Except for this game he was not the Arsenal captain with the armband passing to Theo Walcott who is celebrating 10 years at the club. But was it an occasion to do that? It may have made no difference but it did not look professional. Mertesacker’s foul was. He was caught out and paid the price – and the central defender knew it.
Costa’s run was clever but so was Willian’s through ball – after the impressive midfielder had burst forward, riding Nacho Monreal’s tackle – to pick out the striker who had smartly pulled away from Koscielny to the slower Mertesacker.
Quite why Mertesacker then glanced across to the assistant referee Simon Beck before making the challenge was unfathomable. He hoped for offside, of course, maybe he hoped Koscielny was closer, but he lost a split second – and that mattered – and then had to lunge. Costa went over; Mertesacker went off.
The atmosphere became even more febrile. But the cool heads were in Chelsea shirts. This was a game when John Terry was imperious, Fabregas incisive, Costa irrepressible. There was industry and aggression from Willian and Oscar and a nod of approval from caretaker manager Guus Hiddink whose only complaint was that Chelsea did not kill it with a second goal.
But that is also a reflection of where they are right now. If Chelsea had lost this game they would have lurched towards a fresh crisis; a bout of introspection and anxiety over the prospect of relegation. Instead, once more, they felt emboldened to talk about climbing the table with Terry pushing the envelope by mentioning a tilt at the top four. What a difference one game can make.
In fairness this was probably
Chelsea’s best performance of the season after two indifferent home displays that followed their previous best performance of the season away to Crystal Palace. Their recovery remains a slow burner but the flame is flickering.
Hiddink’s emollient approach, with a bit of urbane spikiness also, is certainly coaxing more out of Costa. His goal capped a mad five-minute period with Mertesacker’s sending off and then Wenger reacting by bringing on Gabriel. That made sense – he needed another centre-half – but he sacrificed Olivier Giroud. The striker was astonished while the Arsenal fans were angry.
If Wenger’s decision was tactically logical – down to 10-men he knew his team would have to play more on the counter and he wanted to use Walcott’s pace – it nevertheless sent out the wrong message. It spoke of damage limitation.
There was also the problem of Gabriel who had been dismissed in the reverse fixture earlier this season after being provoked by Costa and the Brazilian did not appear to know how to react this time round.
Instead, he failed to react. As did Koscielny. It came as Nemanja Matic’s cross was allowed to bounce the length of the penalty area to be collected on the other flank by Branislav Ivanovic who whipped the ball in towards the near post. There was Costa to tuck a close-range shot past Cech. It was Costa’s fifth goal in five games – after scoring three in his previous 14 – and Cech then denied him with a fine save, having also beaten out a Willian shot, before Monreal cleared Ivanovic’s header off the line and Koscielny was fortunate not to concede a penalty as he body-checked Fabregas.
For Arsenal, Flamini slipped when given a sight of goal and then volleyed over. Twice the ball pinponged around the Chelsea area with, again, Flamini failing to make sufficient contact. Hiddink inflicted the heaviest defeat – 4-1 – Arsenal have endured at the Emirates Stadium during his first spell at Chelsea in 2009. The question is: has he now inflicted the most damaging?
Blue heaven: Diego Costa beats Petr Cech to seal victory for Chelsea