With 65 minutes gone at the Emirates on Wednesday night, for Chelsea, all signs pointed to defeat. One was the scoreboard, which read 1-0 to Arsenal. Then there were the chances that had gone begging. And the waves of Arsenal attacks. And now the buoyant home crowd.
Twenty minutes later, signs pointed in the opposite direction.
And over the final 10 minutes of a pulsating, mesmerizing derby, they flip-flopped twice more.
In the end, Arsenal and Chelsea settled for a breathtaking 2-2 draw that will have hearts racing throughout London deep into the night. Hector Bellerin, who had foolishly conceded the penalty that let Chelsea back into the game, blasted a stoppage-time equalizer past a helpless Thibaut Courtois.
Within a minute of the restart, the match came full circle. Alvaro Morata, for not the first time, was in on goal, with a chance to break a deadlock, this time for good. But the Spanish striker volleyed right at Petr Cech. Davide Zappacosta’s thunderous follow-up attempt rattled the Arsenal crossbar.
Soon after, the final whistle put an end to the fun. And oh, what fun it was.
The story of Chelsea’s season, which at various points has flirted with crisis, has been resilience. And resilience would have been the story of a 2-1 victory on Wednesday, had it held. Arsenal’s only lead of the game, courtesy of a storybook Jack Wilshere goal in the 63rd minute, lasted just four minutes.
Bellerin foolishly went in to a 50/50 challenge in the penalty area, and sent Eden Hazard to the spot. The Belgian converted, and Chelsea, previously treading water, was suddenly on solid, even ground.
In the 84th minute, Marcos Alonso put put the Blues ahead. The Gunners had reverted to their self-destructive selves for the concession of the equalizer, but the visitors had taken their opportunity and run with it. Zappacosta beat young Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the right and fizzed in a cross for Alonso to redirect past Cech.
Such a thrilling match, though, could not end with out one more twist. Or two. Or five.
The entire 90 minutes were end-to-end. And they could have, and probably would have, been oh so different if Morata had taken the best chance they offered up. In the 14th minute, the Spanish striker almost strolled onto the end of an aimless long ball that Cech and his center backs all shied away from. With all the time in the world, he slid his side-footed finish wide. It was a truly terrible miss for the most expensive signing in club history. And it wouldn’t be his last guilt-edged chance.
It wasn’t the last chance of the first half, either. Far from it. Down at the other end, Maitland-Niles appeared to have been inadvertently clipped by Victor Moses in the penalty area. But before remonstrations could reach a fever pitch, Arsenal had the ball back in the box. Alexis Sanchez’s snap shot clipped the finger tips of Courtois, then the insides of both posts, before trickling into Courtois’ waiting arms.
The stretchy Belgian keeper was called into action regularly by Arsenal’s free-flowing attack. Mesut Ozil buzzed all over the field. Alexandre Lacazette spun at the edge of the area and brought a diving save out of Chelsea’s world-class shot-stopper. Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen, to the naked eye, were very strong, but despite their interventions, Arsenal came again, and again, and again.
So did Chelsea. When Arsenal went to Stamford Bridge back in September, it arrived with a cagey approach, and left with a 0-0 draw. Wednesday’s approach was the complete opposite. There were holes aplenty in midfield. Cesc Fabregas played in Tiemoue Bakayoko, whose left-footed shot was saved by Cech. An unforced Arsenal giveaway in midfield presented Hazard with a chance to run at the Gunners’ defense, but his drive, which looked to have wrong-footed Cech, was blocked.
On the stroke of halftime, the Blues had yet another opportunity to break the 0-0 deadlock. N’Golo Kante’s marvelous recovery run and tackle on Ozil near midfield sprung a counter to Arsenal’s snuffed-out counter. Hazard danced inside and teed up Fabregas. With Cech at his mercy, the Spanish playmaker skewed his 18-yard shot high and wide.
The second 45 minutes brought more of the same. They also, of course, brought goals. But before they did, Cech had to keep Chelsea at bay once – twice – more. He denied Hazard with a fine kick-save, then pushed away an Alonso header that was destined for the corner of his net.
At the other end, Lacazette forced a similar kick-save out of Courtois. But there was no stopping Wilshere’s strike off the inside of the near post.
The opener will get lost in the shuffle, but it was a remarkable moment. The 26-year-old English midfielder didn’t start a Premier League game until mid-December, and hadn’t started consecutive league matches for Arsenal since 2014-15. His injury-plagued, topsy-turvy career had come to be viewed through a nostalgic lens, rather than as the backdrop for a comeback.
But in his sixth-straight start since the reintroduction in December, he scored his first Premier League goal in 956 days in the most dramatic of fashions.
Bellerin’s lunge, which nicked Hazard’s ankle, cut short the celebrations. Mintues later, Morata had his second of three runs at Cech. This was the toughest of the three, with a covering Arsenal defender on his left hip. But it resulted in yet another miss. Chelsea boss Antonio Conte crumpled to the ground and smacked the Emirates turf in disgust. That’s not what he and the club paid £58 million for.
Morata’s troubles in front of goal were forgotten when Alonso completed the comeback. Many of the minute details from a dramatic, whirlwind 90 minutes will be forgotten eventually. But the game won’t be. It was one of the most memorable London derbies of the current era. And with both sides relatively satisfied with the result, everyone who witnessed it will look back fondly.
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