A Bridge too far
As the 2003-04 Arsenal Invincibles crack open the champagne now that their historic unbeaten season is once again safe, they should pause for a moment to toast one of their own. Had it not been for ex-Gunner Gael Clichy's slack defending and stunningly brainless tackling, it is doubtful that Man City would have suffered its first Premier League defeat, a somewhat dubious 2-1 loss to Chelsea in their Cashico at the Bridge. It's a result that every neutral should cheer, given that it keeps us interested in the title race at least through the new year. City's lead is now a mere two points over Manchester United -- the Red Devils could displace their fellow Europa Leaguers atop the table if they beat QPR this weekend and City loses to Arsenal -- and seven over Chelsea, which leapfrogged its two London rivals into third place.
Forgotten Frank Lampard -- left out of the starting lineup for the second consecutive game -- Lazarus-ed up from the Chelsea bench to score the decisive penalty in the 82nd minute after Joleon Lescott was ruled to have handled in the box, a decision somewhat generous to the hosts, especially after David Silva's justifiable yelp for a more obvious first-half penalty had been studiously ignored.
Roberto Mancini has said all along that he fully expected his team to lose a league game sooner or later, so perhaps it's better for Man City in the long run that the added burden of an unbeaten run is off its back, along with the pressure of trying to win the Champions League. Now the Sky Blues are free to concentrate on the Carling Cup.
This was yet another night of vindication for Andre Villas-Boas, the perhaps-no-longer-quite-so-beleaguered Chelsea manager, whose idea of grace under pressure in the run-up to the game was to issue one petulant tirade after another. His verbal assault on the media as a bunch of clueless, biased prats was only his opening salvo. He also had informed Nicolas Anelka (who spurned a life of leisure in the MLS for a life of leisure at $273,000 a week in China) and Alex that their services were no longer needed and then underlined his full siege mentality by banning the squad's reserves from first-team training.
But perhaps his most painfully comic edict was to insist that his players conduct their goal celebrations in front of the dugout so they could include the coaching staff.
Did AVB really think a proud warrior like Lampard would heed that ridiculous dictate, especially after being relegated to the bench and forced to accept that he was deemed too old and "slow" for the new Chelsea? The 33-year-old midfielder, for so long the heartbeat of the dominant Blues teams of yore, wasn't about to feign a bromance with his 34-year-old manager.
After smashing in the penalty kick with all the pent-up ferocity of a man who has been pushed to the margins, Lampard looked up at the delirious Chelsea supporters and thumped his chest, engulfed by teammates all too aware of his game-winning goal's catharsis.
Yet it could all have ended so differently for the Blues had Clichy kept his wits and not forced City to play the last half-hour with ten men.
Before the West London prawn-sandwich brigade had even settled in their luxury suites, Sergio Aguero spun deftly past the oil tanker-slow John Terry and bisected two defenders with a perfectly placed through ball to Mario Balotelli. And yes, this is the same Mad Mario who added to his bag of circus tricks by breaking curfew Sunday night to hang out in a mall. It took Balotelli only two minutes to show why -- unlike, say, Carlos Tevez -- Mancini is willing to put up with his shenanigans.
In his typically insouciant fashion, Balotelli loped onto Aguero's pass, rode a desperate challenge by a sliding Branislav Ivanovic, skipped around a diving Petr Cech and rolled the ball into an empty net. Then he stood there with his trademark thousand-yard stare drinking in the adoration of the away fans.
The blistering pace and gusto of City's start was never going to last the full 90 minutes, given the spirit and resolve AVB had instilled in his embattled squad. In the end, it was the one Blues player Mancini feared most that tore apart the Chelsea rearguard.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Daniel Sturridge left Clichy in his slipstream as he galloped down the right wing before teeing up an onrushing Raul Meireles for his first Chelsea goal in 22 games since arriving from Anfield. It was a slickly worked setup-and-finish, one that reflected the ever-changing face of the Premier League: an ex-City player punking an ex-Gooner to set up an ex-Liverpool midfielder for Chelsea's equalizer.
That'll teach Mancini to buy an Arsenal defender to lock down the flank! (And, where, by the way, was Samir Nasri? Oh right, Mancini is keeping him fresh for the Europa League.) Clichy's reckless stomp on Ramires earned him a second yellow in the 58th minute.
Despite the man advantage, the Blues didn't exactly put their collective boot on the game's throat. Rather, they dithered and dallied, looking perfectly content to settle for a point. How else do you explain that for most of the second half Chelsea kept putting nine men behind the ball, at least three of them in the general vicinity of Balotelli, who after his rampaging start was strangely muted?
It was only in the latter stages of the game that the Blues stopped showing City the kind of deference accorded to a team that is scoring at a rate (49 goals in 15 league games) not seen before in 20 years of the Premier League. As Chelsea ramped up the pressure, Sturridge's speculative shot clunked off Lescott's raised elbow. Referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot he had so conveniently forgotten about when Jose Bosingwa upended Silva in the 18th minute, and while Juan Mata appeared to step up to take the resulting penalty kick, this was always going to be Light The Lamps' moment.
Lucky? Almost certainly.
Ironic? For sure.
But Villas-Boas is not about to question the capricious swings of fortune, or the fact that it was a player he respects but no longer considers talismanic to Chelsea's cause that lifted the yoke of pressure from his shoulders. As his prickly dealings with the media and his sometimes ruthless decisions about his team (is Fernando Torres now strictly a league cup player?) attest, AVB is not much interested in popularity contests.
Putting his team back in the league-title conversation and having his tactical philosophy justified with a victory over the champions-elect is all the love he needs for now.
Coming soon to the Emirates: a Robin van Persie statue
I once asked Thierry Henry if there was anything better than an Arsenal victory. "Yes," said the impish Frenchman, "an Arsenal victory and a Spurs defeat."
Laissez les bon temps rouler! Henry could hardly have had a more enjoyable weekend, what with the Gunners beating Everton 1-0 on the back of Robin van Persie's outrageous volley and Spurs having their 11-game unbeaten streak derailed 2-1 on a perfectly nice Sunday afternoon at Stoke.
There was also the little matter of Henry being bronzed for immortality outside the Emirates. Say this for the Arsenal board of directors: They may show in every transfer window that they're cheap, but at least they have a sense of humor. Instead of depicting Henry in full supersonic flight or conjuring any one of his wondrous 226 goals, they erected a statue of the Arsenal legend in an altogether different kind of iconic pose -- basically taunting Spurs for the rest of eternity. There he is, sliding on his knees after scoring against Tottenham at Highbury in November 2002.
The club chose to unveil the statue Friday as part of Arsenal's 125-year anniversary celebration. Henry took one look at it and nearly burst into tears. Why do I think he'll be slightly more composed when the Red Bulls finally get around to honoring him?
"Once a Gooner, always a Gooner," Henry is fond of saying. And he actually means it. Saturday during the Everton game, the cameras kept panning to him in the director's box, but like his fellow Gunners on the field, he showed few signs of life other than to burrow increasingly deeper into his red and white scarf to ward off the London chill. Then, in the 70th minute, both the Gunners and their greatest player sprang to life.
The moment van Persie's thunderbolt flew into the far corner, Henry was out of his seat, applauding the Dutchman's inspirational piece of striking genius. The two forwards had overlapped at Arsenal during Henry's last three years at the club, when the Frenchman ran the team as his personal fiefdom and had little time for van Persie's ego and off-the-field troubles. But if there's one thing Henry values almost as much as loyalty, it's talent. And it didn't take him long to realize that RvP had bags of it.
So even though van Persie's brilliant volley moved him to within one goal of Henry's single-year record, Henry -- along with everyone else at the Emirates -- knew he had witnessed a strike for the ages.
Ironically, up to that moment, van Persie had looked nothing like a man who was in the form of his life. The couple of chances he had went begging as he generally drifted in and out of the game. (Gunners fans call that the "Full Arshavin.") But with 20 minutes to go, Alex Song -- who is rapidly developing into one of the classiest defensive midfielders in Europe -- spotted van Persie in space at the edge of the box.
Clipping rather than driving his pass over the top of the Everton defense so as to take the pace off it, Song made sure the ball would fall ever so gently onto van Persie's left foot. In an eye blink, RvP adjusted his body to the flight of the pass, and in one fluid motion swung his left leg with such ferocious torque that both feet were off the ground at the moment of impact, and the ball actually changed its trajectory at the last instant, swerving just inside the far post before Tim Howard could move a muscle.
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It was the 33rd Prem goal in 2011 for van Persie, and maybe his most jaw-dropping to date. If there is a better goal scorer in Europe right now -- and don't dare say Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Sergio Aguero -- I would still not trade him for RvP.
Naturally, there will be eye-watering offers as both Real Madrid and Manchester City vow to back up the Brink's truck to the Emirates and spirit the Dutchman away.
But this time Arsene Wenger will throw his body in front of that truck, even as he insists that van Persie isn't a one-man team. Of course, he used to say the same thing about Henry, but given the Frenchman's supporting cast -- Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira et al -- you could at least see his reasoning. Now look at the players who surround RvP -- Gervinho, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey -- and you realize how much more of a burden van Persie has had this season in hauling the Gunners from the relegation zone to the top four, where they resided Saturday after their seventh win in their past eight league games.
Certainly the Arsenal faithful realize just how much RvP means to the team's success. As the clock ticked down on the Everton victory, the Emirates erupted in a joyful new song:
"When the red 'n' white Robin comes bob-bob-bobbin along
The Spurs will be sobbin' when he gets the ball from Alex Song."
The sculptors are no doubt already hard at work on the statue.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."