Ranieri on charge to catch Wenger

In an atmosphere charged with heady prospect and metropolitan rivalry the most intriguing thought was that Chelsea were equipped in body and spirit to overcome the odds and leave Arsenal with only the Premiership to play for in a season that had promised emulation of Manchester United's 1999 treble.

In an atmosphere charged with heady prospect and metropolitan rivalry the most intriguing thought was that Chelsea were equipped in body and spirit to overcome the odds and leave Arsenal with only the Premiership to play for in a season that had promised emulation of Manchester United's 1999 treble.

Arsenal's defeat by United in a robust FA Cup semi-final last Saturday was not the stuff of overwhelming gloom but the failure to wrest superiority from Sir Alex Ferguson's team in midfield had induced a palpable sense of nervousness in their supporters, including the boxing promoter Frank Warren who feared that the team he follows avidly had gone off the boil since establishing the important Champions' League advantage of an away goal in the drawn first leg three weeks ago. "That night I was convinced we'd go through, but now I'm not sure,'' he said when we spoke before the game.

Warren may know more about actual body blows than the metaphorical variety but conversations overheard en route to north London made it clear that others of the red and white persuasion shared his trepidation.

Considering that Chelsea were going into the game on a run of five Premiership victories that has taken them to within four points of Arsenal, and had not lost or failed to score away from home in the competition, there was generosity in the 7-2 available in the betting outlets.

Holding no allegiance to either club, I scanned the chosen teams for a clue to how the coaches were thinking, whether Saturday's failure had persuaded Arsène Wenger to stiffen the area in front of its defence and if Claudio Ranieri was to hold with the personnel who put in a disciplined performance when narrowly defeating Tottenham in their most recent League outing.

That Ranieri resisted his habit of tinkering with the team suggested the realisation that he could not send better men into the fray, while Arsenal were boosted by the return of Ashley Cole and a rapid recovery of Fredrik Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes from injuries sustained at Villa Park.

The return of Thierry Henry from the gamble of keeping him on the bench for most of that game gave Arsenal a better chance of obtaining the imaginative fluency that has persuaded many good judges to write them ahead of any team in the history of any game in England. However, it was Arsenal's aggressive opening that set the tone of a match more distinctive for the driving qualities of a domestic squabble than a European affair.

Chelsea's urgent response brought bookings for William Gallas and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink but the swiftness of Arsenal's early surges, especially along their left where Henry and Pires were prominent, required heroic defending.

The combative spirit that gave the visitors numbers behind the ball whenever danger developed and the thrusting runners at the first glimpse of an opportunity to counterattack almost brought Damien Duff a goal when he broke clear to shoot wide with his weaker right foot. But the force remained mainly with Arsenal, four opportunities passing before Reyes snatched the lead in first-half added time.

It left Chelsea with a hard road to travel but their energy was never less than coherent, bringing the reward of an equaliser struck by Frank Lampard.

From being in charge of the game Arsenal began to surrender possession to the urgency of Chelsea's resolve. The introduction of Jesper Gronkjaer for Scott Parker at the start of the second-half brought the problem of dealing with his pace, the result being that Arsenal could no longer risk concentrating their attacks along Chelsea's right.

A match of thrilling fluctuation showed no sign of losing its intensity. It went Chelsea's way in dramatic fashion, Wayne Bridge exchanging passes with Eidur Gudjohnsen to snatch victory three minutes from time.

Could it be that having become the first London club to reach the semi-final of the European Cup since Tottenham Hotspur were unluckily defeated by Benfica in 1962 Chelsea can strike fear into Arsenal in what is left of the Premiership season?

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