Granit Xhaka Seals Arsenal Place At Wembley At Chelsea’s Expense

Granit Xhaka Seals Arsenal Place At Wembley At Chelsea’s Expense
January 24 22:36 2018 Print This Article

It is only January and these two London rivals have now met five times this seaon. Given it had been impossible to separate them after 90 minutes in the previous four matches, it was always likely to take something special or freakish to do so on this occasion. In the end it was something freakish.

It is unclear how many ladders Antonio Rüdiger walked under before this semi-final, second leg but the Chelsea defender’s bad luck knew no bounds. With his team one-up through the irrepressible Eden Hazard, Rüdiger saw a Nacho Monreal header flick off Marcos Alonso, hit him and go in for an equalising own goal.

Worse was to come. When Alexander Lacazette chased through in the second half and pulled back a low cross, the ball deflected off Rüdiger and there was Granit Xhaka, in the perfect position, to stretch out a leg and steer home. It is Arsenal who will face Manchester City in next month’s final. Arsène Wenger has never won this competition. Could the wait be about to end?

The first leg had been locked, with both teams reluctant to come out, but this tie crackled to life at the outset. As Wenger predicted, it would be open and higher on thrills, although it was far too loose for his liking in the early exchanges. Chelsea pressed and, when Alex Iwobi and then Shkodran Mustafi tried to play out from the back, they found only blue shirts. The nerves of the home crowd jangled.

As a result it did not feel such a shock when Hazard tiptoed through to open the scoring. It ought to have done – the space he was afforded was remarkable. Pedro, who had seen a fifth-minute header correctly disallowed for offside, accepted a pass from N’Golo Kanté and he fed Hazard. The breakdown in Arsenal’s defensive structure was total. Hazard was never going to miss the one-on-one with David Ospina.

Fresh from the damage he had caused from set pieces against Crystal Palace on Saturday, Monreal met a corner from Mesut Özil but what happened next could not have been planned on the training ground. Monreal’s header hit Marcos Alonso before ricocheting off the head of Rüdiger and flying past Willy Caballero. Moments earlier Iwobi had played in Jack Wilshere only for Caballero to block and then paw clear of the onrushing Monreal.

It was helter-skelter stuff and Wenger, surely unnerved by the threat of Hazard, made a tactical tweak midway through the first half. He went to a system with wing-backs and Mohamed Elneny in front of the three centre-halves. Wenger’s more advanced midfielders interchanged positions, with Özil in a particularly free role. It all looked off the cuff.

Hazard bristled with menace, even when he did not touch the ball. It was his 21st-minute dummy that made the Arsenal backline freeze and Willian run in on Monreal. Willian’s shot was off target. When Hazard executed a rabona instead of a more conventional cross, it strengthened the impression that he was playing his own game.

Xhaka saw a free-kick from a tight angle deflect over the crossbar while Özil, expertly fed by Wilshere, struck for the far corner in first-half stoppage time. The shot deflected off Andreas Christensen to squirm just wide.

Chelsea lost Willian to injury on the half hour but it spelt opportunity – and a debut – for Ross Barkley. The £15m signing lined up as one of the wide attackers in Antonio Conte’s 4-3-3 formation but there were times when he swapped places with Hazard – who played as the false nine. Barkley had not been ready to come on, which prompted a verbal volley from Conte.

The attacking options on display – or otherwise – provided one of the sub-plots. Wenger has sold Alexis Sánchez and Theo Walcott this month and, with Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck injured, he did not have much in reserve on the bench.

The club are pushing hard to sign Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund. Lacazette fed on scraps at the tip of the formation. With Álvaro Morata injured, Conte had the chance to stick with Michy Batshuayi up front but it is clear he does not trust him. He would rather ask Hazard to play out of position than start with Batshuayi, although Hazard’s class is such that he would probably make a decent fist of playing anywhere. The club are closing in on a deal for the Roma striker, Edin Dzeko.

Hazard appeared to flirt with disaster on 53 minutes. Booked for a first-half pull on Özil, he sprinted through only to lose his footing, with Mustafi in pursuit. Was it a dive? No. He had merely tripped.

[Guardian UK]

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