Arsenal plagued by defensive uncertainty

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The Independent Football

The days leading up to the meeting of Arsenal and Chelsea at Highbury had an intensity of nervous excitement that one associates with contests for the heavyweight championship.

Football, of course, is not boxing, but such is the stature of these two teams, such was the opportunity to deliver a psychological blow at this stage of the season, the comparison is valid. Played at breakneck pace, the game swung one way and then the other with little time for players to savour the outcome of their work.

The skill levels available to Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho always promised to make this an outstanding encounter and the crowd were not to be disappointed. This was not a day for playing the ball with unhurried certainty to eliminate the early errors that can prove so costly. It was one for launching a tactic from central and deep positions, for urgent assaults and imaginative initiative under pressure.

Compared with the Merseyside and Midlands derby matches played this weekend it was also one to emphasise the huge gap in skill between the best of the Premiership teams and those scuffling below them.

Arsenal got off to a flying start, scoring after only two minutes when a ball floated forward by Cesc Fabregas was nodded down to Thierry Henry by Jose Reyes. The Frenchman swung his left foot to make a clean connection with a volley that sped past Petr Cech in Chelsea's goal. It was a rousing start and one that Arsenal quickly attempted to build on. But Chelsea had not gone 25 games in all competitions without suffering more than two defeats for the early setback to stifle their ambition.

Mourinho had kept the same personnel and the same system, two wide players in attack supported by one operating slightly deeper than for last week's 4-0 victory over Newcastle. It was an ambitious move on the Chelsea manager's part, meaning that his team ran the risk of being outnumbered in midfield much as they were last week but without any effect on their efficiency.

Considering that Arsenal have made a habit of conceding goals from set-pieces, and the fallibility of both senior goalkeepers on their staff, the statistic that Chelsea had won more corners, 127, than any other team in the Premiership was bound to induce nervousness in their supporters whenever Chelsea had an opportunity to dispatch a dead ball into Arsenal's penalty area.

Wenger had decided to stick with Manuel Almunia as his goalkeeper for the day and ironic cheers greeted his early opportunities to deal with the ball.

However when Chelsea won a corner in the 17th minute it turned out to be another disaster for Arsenal's defence despite the presence of Sol Campbell, whose absence from the team due to injury had previously been offered as a reason why Arsenal had looked so vulnerable in their own penalty area.

Frank Lampard took the kick and again Arsenal were not up to it, allowing John Terry to score his sixth goal of the season, some total for a centre-back and a tribute to his forcefulness in opposing penalty areas.

The brisk mobility that both teams brought to the action was not at the cost of trying to declare class and the game alternated between fierce midfield encounters and the alert running of both sets of attackers.

Arjen Robben's ability to make something of unpromising situations with his deft left foot, pace and upper body strength was seen at its best in the second half but when the interval came Arsenal were once again ahead, having taken the lead on the half-hour through a free-kick quickly struck by Henry while Chelsea were still assembling their defensive wall.

It was time for Mourinho to switch things around and the sight of Wayne Bridge and Didier Drogba warming up when the teams re-emerged indicated that Chelsea's manager was intent on getting quickly back into the game. However it was Arsenal's own failing rather than any surge by Chelsea that saw the West Londoners draw level within two minutes of the restart. Another set-piece, another shambles.

This time a corner taken by Damien Duff reached the head of William Gallas and then on into Chelsea's net from the shoulder of Eidur Gudjohnsen.

Later in the half another failure to pick up men at a corner kick left Lampard with the easiest of chances to put Chelsea ahead for the first time in the match but his header went over.

With 15 minutes left Chelsea made another change, bringing on Scott Parker for Gudjohnsen indicating that Mourinho would settle for a point on this most important fixture.

There was no exhaustion of spirit by either team but inevitably the game became stretched, Chelsea relying on long balls forward to Duff and Drogba.