Arsenal tops Chelsea to stay in the hunt for a Champions League berth

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In the lead-up to Saturday’s marquee Premier League matchup between London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, first-year Gunners manager Unai Emery repeatedly referred to the contest as a “must-win” game for his team. 

Arsenal played like it. In a 2-0 win at the Emirates Stadium that wasn’t as close as the scoreline would suggest, the hosts dominated possession and rode a brilliant individual strike by French forward Alexandre Lacazette, who scored the only goal the hosts would need in the 14th minute:

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Emery’s game plan worked to perfection 

The Spanish boss had gotten off to a blistering start in his maiden season at the Emirates after replacing the legendary Arsene Wenger over the summer, going unbeaten for a stretch of 22 games across all competitions. But the Gunners cooled off along with the winter weather, losing to Southhampton, West Ham and Liverpool — that one a 5-1 drubbing — and drawing Brighton over a four-week stretch between Dec. 16 and last weekend. 

The lull had seen Arsenal fall to sixth in the Premier League, with fourth place and the lucrative Champions League slot that comes with it threatening to slip beyond the club’s reach.

Hence the importance Emery put on Saturday. The Gunners came out firing, with the objective clearly to overwhelm the visitors early and steal a goal, forcing Chelsea to open up away from home.

Arsenal generated four shots inside the first quarter of an hour off the all-out press, and the hosts had forced a couple of all-world saves from Blues keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga before 20 minutes had elapsed. It felt like a matter of time until the Gunners would strike again. And that’s exactly how it played out, with defender Laurent Koscielny doubling the advantage in the 39th minute:

Chelsea had its chances (seriously) …

Maurizio Sarri’s side came into the match holding onto that coveted fourth spot by three points, with surging Manchester United hot on their heels. Even after giving up the early goal, the Blues had to know that opportunities of their own would eventually come, especially with Arsenal’s defense looking suspect in recent weeks. 

The first chance arrived just moments after Lacazette’s opener, when Pedro took a David Luiz pass and chipped Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno, only for the ball to drift wide of the German’s back post. 

And while the Blues ended the first half with no shots on target, the width of Leno’s post was all that prevented Chelsea from pulling to within one as Marcos Alonso’s header just missed on the stroke of halftime. Had that shot gone in, the momentum — and maybe even the result — could’ve gone a different way. 

Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette’s first-half goal against Chelsea stood up as the game-winner. (Ian Kington/Getty)
Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette’s first-half goal against Chelsea stood up as the game-winner. (Ian Kington/Getty)

… but Arsenal fully deserved the points

Look, it’s not like Chelsea was licking its wounds down 2-0. The Blues overturned Arsenal’s early possession advantage to the point where they’d controlled the ball for 60 percent of the first half. In the second, Sarri’s men were arguably the better team. They out-shot Arsenal by the final whistle. The will was there even if the end product wasn’t; the Blues didn’t force a save out of Leno in the second half, either. That’s on them.

But Arsenal needed this one, and from the opening whistle it was obvious which was the sharper, more desperate side. The Gunners earned these three crucial points. It was a near-perfect day for the hosts, with the only negative an ugly non-contact leg injury suffered in the second half by fullback Hector Bellerin, who had to be stretchered off the field after a lengthy delay.

One of Emery’s mandates is to steer Arsenal back into the Champions League this season after missing out in Wenger’s final two seasons in charge. If his Gunners are to claw their way back into the top four, they’ll need a few more performances like the one they produced on Saturday.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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