Starting XI: Ospina, Chambers, Mustafi, Holding, Bellerin, Xhaka, Wilshere, Maitland-Niles, Welbeck, Iwobi, Lacazette
Subs: Macey, Mavropanos, Mertesacker, Nelson, Elneny, Walcott, Sanchez
Arsenal put the misery of their FA Cup exit to one side to secure a creditable 0-0 draw with Chelsea in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final at Stamford Bridge.
The home side had the better chances in an entertaining and high-intensity encounter but the Gunners held firm to protect a confidence-building clean sheet. The two sides go head-to-head again in two weeks time to decide who’ll go to Wembley at the end of February.
Tight, scrappy, fast. The first half was a typically English affair. There were chances at each end, but you sensed at the same time that both sides were holding back a little. Not wholly unexpected from a first leg showdown.
Chelsea were the better side in the opening stages and threatened early when Morata hit the side-netting with a toe poke inside two minutes. The Spain international was the target for much of the home side’s play with Hazard and Fabregas both attempting long lofted balls over the Gunners defence in his direction. Mustafi, restored to the starting lineup, did well to snaffle the threat, albeit illegally a couple of times.
In response, Arsenal spent a disproportionately large amount of time playing the ball across their own penalty box. To keep everyone’s nerves on edge they occasionally got Ospina involved with the odd under-hit pass. It was tough to tell if we were playing with assurance or fire.
The Gunners were controlled in the midfield with Wilshere, captain for the night, pulling the strings. It was the England international’s vision that created our first chance, his scooped ball over the Chelsea backline finding Lacazette’s well-timed run. On the angle, from the edge of the box, the Frenchman attempted an ambitious effort that flew over. He should have tested the keeper at least.
Xhaka took a bad free-kick, a bad corner and Hazard out a couple of times. It was amazing that he lasted until the second half before getting booked.
Back came Chelsea. Maitland-Niles who looked decent on the ball was twice caught by darting runs by Moses. On the first occasion, the Nigerian wing-back forced a fumbled save from Ospina, on the second he hit the Colombian’s near post.
Iwobi, starting the game despite being fined for partying less than 48 hours before the defeat to Nottingham Forest, forced Courtois into a save a couple of minutes before half time. The ball was parried to Maitland-Niles who nipped in front of Moses and went down. Penalty? Martin Atkinson deferred to the Video Assistant Referee, being used for only the second time ever in English football, who decided it was a goal-kick.
The best chance of the half came just moments before the break as Fabregas’s head connected with an Azpilicueta cross to force Ospina into a decent stop.
The home side came out determined to tighten the screw. Concerted pressure created a chance for Christensen inside a minute. He headed over under pressure from Mustafi.
Arsenal didn’t help themselves. Despite being under the cosh they repeatedly tried to play their way out of tight spaces. Chelsea kept winning the ball back quickly and in the final third.
Wilshere’s night came to a premature end before the hour mark. An attempt to block a Drinkwater cross seemed to jar his ankle and he was replaced by Elneny. Given how well he’d been playing it was a real blow.
Arsenal were just about holding on at this point. Ospina parried a shot from the edge of the box. Next Morata slipped an effort under the keeper but couldn’t squeeze the ball inside the post. More chances to the Blues. Mustafi deflected a shot over the bar and Christensen missed another header, this time from a corner with Ospina flailing.
The only thing that stemmed the Blue tide for a few moments was another substitution as Alexis Sanchez, rumoured to be the subject of a £20 million bid from Manchester City, replaced Lacazette. It looked like we might be forced into another change when Chambers twisted his knee. After treatment, he came back on.
Arsenal began to come out of the shell in the final 20 minutes. Iwobi made a nice run through the centre of the park but then panicked when it came to shoot. He barely even made contact with the ball. Welbeck also managed a nice spin in the box but his shot was closed down at close quarters.
Chelsea still had bite and the better of the chances as the game reached its conclusion.
Ospina fielded a couple of long range efforts. Holding had to be sharp to block Hazard, who’d escaped a Mustafi lunge, and Xhaka deflected a Fabregas cross into Ospina’s near post and out for a corner. Referee Atkinson again chatted to the VAR as he checked whether Welbeck had taken out the ex-Gunner in the build-up.
They were nervous moments for Arsene Wenger who was sitting in the press box because of his touchline ban. Thankfully, we managed to hold tight to secure a second 0-0 draw at the Bridge of the season.