Arsenal, who have had far more attempts on goal than any other Premiership side this season, belatedly found their shooting boots yesterday and shot briefly to the top of the table before Newcastle United overhauled them later in the afternoon. To do so required considerable improvement on a poor first half in which Frank Lampard put a superior Chelsea in front.
That superiority did not extend beyond the opening few minutes of the second period, in which Sol Campbell headed his first goal since leaving Tottenham. By the time Sylvain Wiltord – one of three substitutes successfully introduced by Arsène Wenger – scored what turned out to be the winning goal, the visitors were on the run for the first time in a number of weeks.
In the past month Chelsea have beaten Liverpool, Manchester United, Leeds and Newcastle, all without conceding a goal. Victory over Arsenal as well and they would have leapt above their London rivals; but while the Blues never lose at Tottenham, they never seem to win up the road at Highbury. Claudio Ranieri is, however, building a more solid, more consistent team, tinkering less with the personnel and tactics, and he should be able to keep them in contention for one of the four Champions' League places.
He had accepted defeat graciously, acknowledging the strength of Arsenal's recovery, until becoming vexed at the after-match press conference with a journalist who called Graeme Le Saux "a coward''. "You are a coward,'' the Chelsea manager said and abruptly terminated the proceedings.
An raw-boned encounter, sun and shade between the two Premiership teams with the highest number of yellow cards this season became overheated soon after Campbell's equaliser, when Le Saux felled Patrick Vieira with one of the cruder challenges that often disfigure his game. That led to so many players becoming involved in what Ranieri called "Boxing Day boxing''. As Wenger said, the referee, Graham Barber, could have sent off enough of them to end the match. "The referee was Pontius Pilate,'' Ranieri said.
What both managers agreed on was that the half-time interval was the point at which the tide turned Arsenal's way. As Wenger admitted: "In the first half Chelsea were on top and we needed a reaction. It was down to character more than technical ability. There's so much hunger in this team and they gave everything.''
For 50 minutes they did not look hungry enough and seemed to be sated with the deserved praise that followed Sunday's exceptional victory with 10 men at Liverpool. Only Nwankwo Kanu's early shot, blocked by the outstanding John Terry, had even ruffled Chelsea's defence before Lampard scored in the 32nd minute. Mario Melchiot's throw from the right bounced off Vieira to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who set up the former West Ham man to shoot in low off the far post. With Arsenal stuttering, Le Saux had two shots deflected wide in quick succession just before half-time, the second bringing an inswinging corner by Hasselbaink that Ashley Cole had to head off the line.
Wenger put on Giovanni van Bronckhorst for Ray Parlour, moving Vieira into direct confrontation with his friend Emmanuel Petit – who had received a rather lukewarm reception from the crowd on his return to Highbury – and Arsenal did not look back. Barely five minutes later Carlo Cudicini saved a header by Thierry Henry and, from the resulting corner, Campbell muscled through to head in with a thump. Within a minute Le Saux's brainstorm was almost punished by more than a yellow card, Cudicini only just keeping out Henry's free-kick.
With Henry and Hasselbaink, the Premiership's two leading goalscorers, on the same pitch, there were surprisingly few threats to either goalkeeper apart from another Cudicini save, from Van Bronckhorst late on, the only other one produced the winning goal. In the 65th minute, Melchiot could only clear Van Bronckhorst's free-kick to Wiltord, who did well to keep his shot down, giving the Italian goalkeeper no chance to save. It was a moment vital to Arsenal's aspirations of regaining the championship after Manchester United's long tenure.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Taylor 4; Lauren 7, Campbell 8, Keown 6, Cole 6; Ljungberg 5 (Wiltord 6, 67), Parlour 4 (Van Bronckhorst, 6, h-t), Vieira 6, Pires 6; Kanu 7 (Bergkamp, 8, 73), Henry 5. Substitutes not used: Luzhny, Wright (gk).
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini 5; Melchiot 6, Gallas 7, Terry 8, Babayaro 7; Stanic 3, (Dalla Bona 5, 73), Lampard 5, Petit 5, Le Saux 6 (Zola, 82); Hasselbaink 6, Gudjohnsen 5 (Forssell, 82). Substitutes not used: Jokanovic, De Goey (gk).
Referee: G Barber (Tring) 5.Reuse content