Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1: Grant's last roll of the dice leaves Arsenal's title dreams in tatters
Respect. It is the issue that has gripped English football for seven stormy days and with 20 minutes remaining at Stamford Bridge yesterday it was running out fast for Avram Grant. Derision poured on him from his own team's fans, Jose Mourinho's name ringing out and the Chelsea manager on the brink of a disaster of his own making.
Two goals from Didier Drogba later and Chelsea's maligned manager at last had a Premier League victory over one of the big beasts of English football as well as a foothold in the title race. Respect? Grant might have to wait longer to hear his name sung at Stamford Bridge but give the man his due today: within 11 minutes of his two controversial substitutions Chelsea had completed a remarkable comeback that puts them second in the table and within five points of Manchester United.
The dust settles on another Grand Slam Sunday and the head says that this time these two games have almost lived up to the preposterous hype. There was a 3-0 victory for United over Liverpool after Javier Mascherano ran roughshod over the Football Association's new guidelines for showing respect to officials and was dismissed. Then a Drogba-inspired Chelsea victory after Bacary Sagna had given Arsenal the lead at Stamford Bridge.
Before he reached the light, however, Grant had to experience his darkest moment first. His decision to take off Claude Makelele and, more controversially, Michael Ballack, on 70 minutes elicited an extraordinary response from the fans. As the German shook his head so the Chelsea support began to chant "You don't know what you're doing". By the time Ballack had trudged down the tunnel the Chelsea fans were singing the name of Grant's predecessor.
There is nothing in all the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's resources that can protect his manager from that kind of humiliation. Very quickly, the reaction of the crowd had made these two substitutions from Grant feel like a last roll of the dice; one last desperate attempt to salvage something. Chelsea's 77-game domestic unbeaten run at home was at stake; Mourinho's legacy hung heavy over him. For Grant, this move had to work.
That it was Drogba who won the game for Chelsea was bitterly ironic; he is one of a few players who will for ever be a Mourinho loyalist. As the Ivorian came off the pitch at the end there was the briefest of handshakes with Grant but a hug for his assistant, Steve Clarke. Arsène Wenger tartly pointed out that there was a suspicion of offside over the first Chelsea goal but even he could not deny that his side failed to deal with the power of Drogba.
The big winner from this weekend? Undoubtedly Sir Alex Ferguson, whose United side's lead at the top is extended by two points and whose team have again shown that they have far fewer flaws than any of those in pursuit of them. Chelsea conceded yet another goal from a set piece; Arsenal proved themselves susceptible to the muscle and directness of Drogba. In contrast, United rumble on, still capable, you suspect, of much more should they need to produce it.
This is an ever more brittle Arsenal team, whose dream of winning the title with their beautiful, fragile style of football has surely been broken on a run of five league games without a win. Since that draw with Birmingham on 23 February they have thrown away a lead of eight points over Chelsea. Next season they hope to get all this right, to mature into a team capable of winning games like this, but that kind of transformation felt a long way away come full-time yesterday.
For Grant, however, the story could yet be about this season rather than next. Chelsea play United on 26 April at Stamford Bridge in a game that will make the difference in this title race and Ferguson's side cannot afford to drift within striking distance of Chelsea during the interim.
In the meantime, this was the day which Grant finally got his substitutions right. Derided for his mismanagement of the Carling Cup final, he repeated the same mistakes against Spurs in the 4-4 draw on Wednesday and, with 20 minutes left, the Chelsea fans' confidence in his ability to get it right was running thin. Ballack was having one of his better games, but Grant wanted to move Michael Essien into midfield, Juliano Belletti in at right-back and sacrifice Makelele for the extra striker Nicolas Anelka.
He was forced into it by Arsenal's goal which was Sagna's first for the club. Just before the hour, Cesc Fabregas struck his corner to the near post where, Salomon Kalou had failed to notice before it was too late, Sagna had run. The right-back got the sweetest of touches to guide the ball into Carlo Cudicini's net.
One goal down, Anelka and Belletti on and Sagna off injured. Within a minute Chelsea equalised. Arsenal failed to deal with Ricardo Carvalho's long ball, it bounced around the box, off Frank Lampard and into the path of Drogba, who had been offside when the original pass was played. In the first half, he had clumsily kneed a through-ball to Manuel Almunia when in on goal. This time he dispatched the equaliser past the Arsenal goalkeeper.
If that was soft then the second will have hurt Wenger even more. This time it was a ball into the area from Belletti, headed on by Anelka and, disastrously for Arsenal, missed by Kolo Touré. With a second to hit his snap-shot in the box, Drogba slammed in the winner. Could Almunia have done better? The ball bounced awkwardly but it was certainly not beyond the powers of the Arsenal goalkeeper to stop it.
There was just a brief flash of that unpleasant Chelsea attitude when goalkeeping coach Christophe Lollichon made an attempt to announce himself to the world by withholding the ball from Abou Diaby and was asked by the referee Mark Clattenburg to leave the dugout. That was a reminder of the bad old Chelsea, just as the nature of their comeback felt more like the indomitable Chelsea of Mourinho.
Goals: Sagna (59) 0-1; Drogba (73) 1-1; Drogba (82) 2-1.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cudicini; Essien, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Makelele (Anelka, 70); J Cole (Mikel, 89), Ballack (Belletti, 70), Lampard, Kalou; Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Alex.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna (Diaby, 71), Touré, Gallas, Clichy; Eboué, Fabregas, Flamini (Bendtner, 89), Van Persie (Walcott, 76); Hleb; Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Senderos.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne and Wear).
Booked: Chelsea J Cole, Ballack, Drogba; Arsenal Eboué.
Man of the match: Drogba.
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