ARSENAL MANAGER Arsene Wenger pronounced last Friday that Chelsea would be Premiership champions this season. The Frenchman in all his wisdom may choose to revise his words after this supreme exhibition of passion, last ditch defending and one well-taken chance by Dennis Bergkamp.
Some will see this result as the Arsenal of old, but it was actually the kind of winning style which made Arsenal champions as recently as last season. Wenger's words afterwards confirmed that Arsenal are back on track.
"I don't want to give up on the Championship. I knew we had to win this game and it was our most important win of the season. If we had lost this the championship would have been over for us."
Chelsea were on an unbeaten streak of 21 Premiership games going back to last August but they had not been to Highbury and they had the misfortune to come up against an Arsenal defence that has now not conceded a goal in five league games and Glenn Hoddle permitting they were going to be damned if they were going to let one in this afternoon.
On a day where chances were worth their weight in championship gold Bergkamp took his and with it Arsenal only two points behind leaders Manchester United. With 32 minutes gone Emmanuel Petit hit a long pass to Marc Overmars at the top of the Chelsea penalty area. The winger out-jumped Dan Petrescu and headed onto Bergkamp. In a rare moment of freedom the Dutch striker took full advantage of being unmarked and calmly curled it into the net.
That was the high point of the first half defined by the fact there were as many bookings - three - as shots on goal with Chelsea shading the yellow cards by 2-1 as referee Graham Poll made his mark on the game. Not that either team was doing much to steal the limelight from Poll as they played a football of patterns without much idea on the final design.
Arsenal were without Patrick Vieira but had David Seaman back in goal after five games out. Chelsea were at all but maximum strength except for the absence of Albert Ferrer which forced a defensive reshuffle. Further reorganisation was needed in central defence when Mike Duberry went off injured after 40 minutes after Bergkamp appeared to catch him.
Arsenal were set on revenge for their 5-0 thrashing by Chelsea in November when they lost in the Worthington Cup and it was Bergkamp who went close early on although his shot lacked power. Overmars then saw his shot from the edge of the box palmed away for a corner but shortly afterwards Bergkamp was to prove decisive in a competition Arsenal truly care about.
It was not until late in the first half that Chelsea genuinely threatened Seaman but Bjarne Goldbaek's cross went across the six-yard box with no one to tap it in.
The fact there was such slim pickings for Chelsea was due to Petit and Remi Garde operating so efficiently they closed down their opposite numbers in midfield and when Marcel Desailly replaced Duberry in defence there was even less of a threat to Arsenal.
But Roberto Di Matteo did eventually force Seaman into a save when the Italian's shot fizzed off his left foot but the England goalkeeper tipped the ball over. Then with Arsenal's offside trap sprung for once Petit summed up his effort in the game by sprinting back to deny Gianfranco Zola a certain goal.
As the game inevitably turned into a siege on Seaman's goal it was left to their trusty back line plus Petit to save the game, as the Gunners realised what all three points would do for their Championship challenge. As Wenger said later, he realised his players were intensely focussed on this game ending his press conference with the ominous words, "I prefer the pressure at the top".
Though Bergkamp scored the winning goal, for the Dutchman himself the hero of the hour was the returning Seaman. "We have got a very good squad and we are lucky to have two good goalies," he said. "But of course David Seaman is very experienced and very good in these games. He gives you something extra."
Goal: Bergkamp (32) 1-0.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman, Adams, Keown, Dixon, Winterburn; Petit, Garde, Parlour, Overmars (Daiwara, 74); Bergkamp (Upson, 90), Anelka (Vivas, 67). Substitutes not used: Ljungberg, Manninger (gk).
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Petrescu, Duberry (Goldbaek, 40), Leboeuf, Le Saux; Wise, Desailly, Di Matteo, Babayaro; Vialli, Zola (Forssell, 74). Substitutes not used: Terry, Morris, Hitchcock (gk).
Referee: G. Poll (Tring).
Bookings: Arsenal: Bergkamp, Keown. Chelsea: Petrescu, Leboeuf, Goldbaek.
Man of the match: Petit.