Arsenal get their swagger back at the Bridge

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Hello all.  I wrote this in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game, but have only just found the WIFI signal required to get it up.

Chelsea 3 – 5 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The early part of this 2011/12 season has been characterised by some extraordinary results. Arsenal fans know this better than any, having been involved in remarkable clashes at both Old Trafford and Ewood Park. Yesterday, for the first time, one of these bizarre scorelines fell in our favour.

The scoreline might have been freakish, but the result wasn’t. An Arsenal win surprised many, myself included, but it comes off the back of an impressive run of form – it’s now eight wins from nine games. Chelsea, meanwhile, had lost their last league game at QPR.

Despite that, I didn’t dare anticipate victory. But before the game, looking at our team it did strike me that we are looking stronger than we have in some months. Over the past eight weeks or so, a new team has begun to gel, and there is suddenly a degree of solidity and momentum behind them.

It was a sign of Arsene’s confidence that he was able to leave Thomas Vermaelen on the bench, opting to continue with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker at centre-back. Johan Djourou and Andre Santos continued at full-back, with the first choice midfield trio of Song, Arteta and Ramsey restored. Gervinho and Walcott were the pacy outlets on the flanks, whilst captain Robin van Persie lead the line from the front.

One of the discussion points of the season has been the poor standard of defending. One has reluctantly come to expect that from Arsenal; from Chelsea it is more of a surprise. However, this season Andre Villas Boas has liberated his full-backs with perilous consequences. John Obi Mikel, meanwhile, is simply not a Champions League quality holding midfielder. Had the unreliable David Luiz started the game would have been even more open.

As it happened, it was a miracle the game got as far as 14 minutes at 0-0 – it could easily have been 2-2. I was particularly staggered by one miss from Gervinho – Walcott did brilliantly to skin Ashley Cole and crossed for what seemed a simple tap-in. Somehow, the Ivorian sidefooted wide. I was infuriated, and didn’t feel any better when Van Persie volleyed over an opportunity which, for a player of his equality, was relatively presentable.

When Chelsea took the lead it was through a header from Frank Lampard. Andre Santos, who had looked vulnerable in the early stages, was beaten too easily by Juan Mata, and when he crossed in to the box Lampard eluded Per Mertesacker to nod past Szczesny.

Arsenal were rocking, but before half-time had an equaliser. Aaron Ramsey, whose ninety minutes was typified by moments of enterprise and invention, played an exquisite through ball for Gervinho. This time, the winger knew better than to shoot, and squared to his skipper to tap in to an empty net.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold the lead until half-time, as John Terry bundled home a Frank Lampard corner at the near post. Again Mertesacker was at fault, and he and fellow new boy Santos were having a torrid time. As the half-time whistle blow, most of the talk among Arsenal fans was about replacing the Brazilian with Thomas Vermaelen.

Meanwhile, in the Arsenal dressing room, it seems Arsene Wenger was giving a speech to rival his rousing words at the AGM. With no substitutions made, Arsenal came out and attacked the second half with gusto. Within 4 minutes, we had our second equaliser of the game. And, of course, it was Santos who got the goal, racing on to a Song through-ball to tuck in to the near post and continue the fine tradition of left-backs scoring at the Bridge. From that moment on, he visibly grew in to the game, putting in several crunching tackles as well as marauding forward on the break.

Arsenal had momentum, and soon went ahead for the first time with the fifth goal of the game. Theo Walcott scooted inside from the right, tripped, fell over, clambered back to his feet, whizzed beyond two more defenders and thundered an effort in to Petr Cech’s increasingly vulnerably near post.

At this point, there were still 35 minutes to go, and I had little confidence in our capability to hold the lead. That said, when Chelsea did get their predictable equaliser, we were somewhat unfortunate. Andre Santos was fouled off the ball by Romelu Lukaku, allowing Juan Mata the space to crash in a phenomenal effort from fully thirty yards. At that point, it was easy to feel frustrated that we hadn’t paid the extra few million Euros to secure the Spaniard’s signature.

But there was still time for more late drama. John Terry, who looked at half-time as if he might prove to be the match-winner, inexplicably slipped when trying to reach a loose backpass from Florent Malouda. Robin van Persie raced on to the loose ball, and from then on there was only ever going to be one outcome. The Dutchman skipped past Petr Cech and tucked home to put Arsenal 4-3 ahead.

Chelsea were then left with no choice but to go for broke, and inevitably Arsenal created chances on the break. When Tomas Rosicky headed away an inswinging free-kick, Arsenal were able in break in numbers. Even so, when Van Persie received the ball from Mikel Arteta on the corner of Chelsea’ penalty area the outcome was far from certain. However, the Dutchman unleashed an unstoppable shot which flew past Cech at his near post. It was his hatrick, his tenth league goal of the season, and the eighth of a quite unbelievable game of football. One which we had won.

The celebrations for the fifth goal and the final whistle have have looked a little over-the-top to the neutral. They were more befitting of a side winning the league than a mere three points. However, for Arsenal fans, they require no explanation. After the horrors of Old Trafford, this game provided a necessary and hugely cathartic fillip. For the first time since the victory over Barcelona in spring, Arsenal fans are able to feel unapologetically proud of their team.

Granted, we weren’t perfect – in the first half the defending left much to be desired.  But we played with a swagger that has been sadly absent since the summer.

Supporters and players alike seem to be slowly regaining faith in the potential of this club and team. Winning at Stamford Bridge was a slap in the face to those pundits who said Arsenal wouldn’t even challenge for the top four this season. We’ll certainly be there or thereabouts – the sheer brilliance of Robin van Persie alone ought to be enough to ensure that.

I can’t wait to see what the atmosphere is like at the stadium when Arsenal take on Marseille tomorrow. I hope the fans give the players the raucous welcome they deserve. And should the first goal go against us, I hope they remember the way in which we were able to twice come behind with such stunning effect over the weekend.

I think we’re all agreed that our season only started on September 1st. This weekend, it finally burst in to life. Let’s consign the pain of August to the past, and start enjoying it.