The chant from the Arsenal fans was clear and it was directed at the press box. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” they sang. The target was not hunched over a laptop. This one was for Arsène Wenger, who had taken up residence among the folk he has variously described as snakes, sharks and philosophers over the years– as he served another game of his touchline ban.
The Arsenal manager had brought off Alexandre Lacazette in the 66th minute and the travelling support could not believe it. There were boos as the striker headed off and Alexis Sánchez came on. Sánchez had been the shock omission from the starting line-up. More on that later.
Arsenal were in the throes of weathering a second-half storm in this Carabao Cup semi-final, first-leg. They simply could not get out as Chelsea probed for the opportunity to take charge. The frustration bubbled among the Arsenal crowd. They had wanted to retain the outlet of Lacazette, however peripheral he had been.
But their team would hold firm, which represented a note of optimism, particularly in the wake of Sunday’s FA Cup exit at Nottingham Forest. Chelsea had so much of the play and they could not make it count. This was a missed opportunity for them.
The sub-plots were plentiful around game two of this trilogy, with part one having been the topsy-turvy 2-2 Premier League draw at Emirates Stadium last Wednesday. Wenger served game two of his three-match touchline ban from the press box – down with the guttersnipes – while the Alexis Sánchez situation cast long shadows.
When Sánchez is in the Arsenal squad, he starts. Not here. The club’s joint-leading scorer at kick-off time was on the bench. “You cannot explain every decision,” Wenger had said in his pre-match TV interview.
Nobody could explain this one without thinking of Manchester City’s January push to sign the forward. Meanwhile, Alex Iwobi started, despite his well-documented club curfew infringement last Friday night.
Wenger was in the stands here last season – he was suspended for the league fixture – and he described it as an “uncomfortable” experience. He really slummed it this time. Hunched forward on his seat in the cramped enclosure up behind the dug-outs, he knew that he had to be on his best behaviour. So did the journalists.
There were times when he banged his fist on the desk in front of him, mainly whenever Eden Hazard went down. He kicked the chair in front of him – much to the occupant’s delight – and the emotions churned inside him.
Antonio Conte was 25 yards in front, with the run of the touchline. He rubbed it in by being all animated.
Chelsea were out for revenge. The loss to Arsenal in last season’s FA Cup final hurt badly. Conte went with his strongest line-up, with Hazard pushed up alongside Álvaro Morata. They remembered how fragile Arsenal’s back line had been last Wednesday and they tried to drop a few balls over the top of it for Morata.
The first half was diverting without being gripping. Chelsea went the closest on 28 minutes when Victor Moses got away from Ainsley Maitland-Niles and saw an attempted cross ricochet back to him. He then shot and watched the ball hit the foot of David Ospina’s near post. Calum Chambers reacted quickly to clear.
Earlier, Ospina’s handling had looked a little dodgy after Moses had got past Maitland-Niles and shot low. Ospina would pounce on the loose ball. Chelsea could also point to the moment in first-half stoppage time when César Azpilicueta floated a ball over the shoulder of Cesc Fàbregas inside the area. Fàbregas headed straight at Ospina.
At the other end, Jack Wilshere lofted a ball over the top for Alexandre Lacazette but his finish, when well placed, was wild while Iwobi worked Thibaut Courtois. From the rebound, Moses was late into a challenge on Maitland-Niles, who hurdled over it. Was there contact? The video assistant referee said no.
Chelsea turned up the heat in the second half and it came to be a struggle for Arsenal to escape their own half. Conte’s players pressed high; Wenger’s were pinned back. The chances came, too. Andreas Christensen headed over; Morata felt the ball hit him in front of goal, from a Fàbregas corner – he could not react in time – and the striker also extended Ospina on 56 minutes.
Wilshere was forced off, having looked good in the first half and he now faces one of those anxious waits on a scan. He had been hurt in a challenge with Danny Drinkwater and he went straight off to the dressing-room, although he did return to take his seat on the bench.
Chelsea continued to push. Moses was denied by a fine block by Shkodran Mustafi while Christensen was off-target with another header from a corner, with Ospina out of position. The breakthrough did not come.
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