Eden Hazard mesmerises Arsenal to tighten Chelsea’s Premier League grip

By 5 months ago

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Eden Hazard mesmerises Arsenal to tighten Chelsea’s Premier League grip” was written by Daniel Taylor at Stamford Bridge, for The Observer on Saturday 4th February 2017 14.37 UTC

Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to this renascent Chelsea side, now the title race is starting to feel like a procession and we might be witnessing one of the great managerial performances of the modern era, is that there is still three months to go and it is difficult to see even a flicker of hope for the teams in their wing-mirrors.

What other conclusion can be drawn after the latest triumph from the Premier League’s runaway leaders and another day when it was laid out in precise terms why Antonio Conte’s men are pulling clear, with the chasing pack little more than a speck in the distance? Chelsea have won all but one of their home matches this season. A team who finished 10th last season have reinvented themselves as champions-in-waiting, averaging close to two and a half points a game, and in the process they have also managed to bring forward what is now firmly established as the annual Arsenal meltdown. First versus third, at the start of play, was nothing like as close as might have been anticipated.

Instead, it became another demonstration of why Arsène Wenger was horribly mistaken to believe his watery, lightweight team might be authentic title challengers and, with four defeats in their past nine league fixtures, the most pertinent question for Arsenal now is not whether they can make up the 12-point gap to Chelsea but if they have the fortitude to continue their long sequence of top-four finishes.

That cannot be guaranteed on the evidence provided by an afternoon memorable for Conte indulging in some impromptu crowd-surfing after Eden Hazard had waltzed through the visitors’ defence to make it 2-0 with a piece of individual brilliance. Hazard chose a good day to put in his best performance of the season and it was a wonderfully taken goal from the player whose decline epitomised the team’s shortcomings last season.

At this stage a year ago, Chelsea had 29 points and were languishing in 13th position, closer to the relegation zone than the top five. Their latest win puts them on 59 points and there is nothing whatsoever to suggest they might be susceptible to the kind of loss of nerve that might endanger other sides in this position. Arsenal, for one.

Wenger’s team have now lost in their past five visits to Stamford Bridge, with a combined score of 15-2, and perhaps the most alarming aspect for a team who last won the league 13 years ago is that it is the same deficiencies on each occasion. Every time, we come away with questions about Arsenal’s strength of personality. Once again, we saw a key game unfold without any meaningful contribution from Mesut Özil and came away wondering whether they were too fragile, mentally and physically, to sustain a title challenge – and what that said about a manager who has lost the art of assembling durable championship contenders.

Alexis Sánchez has rarely been so peripheral and the game became a personal ordeal for Petr Cech, returning to the ground where he experienced so many career highs, five minutes from the end of normal time when the goalkeeper misdirected a kick to gave the ball straight to a player in blue. That player happened to be Cesc Fàbregas, once of Arsenal, and someone of his refinement was unlikely to pass up this kind of gift, lifting the ball into an exposed goal.

The lesson for Arsenal is an old one: that no team can defend this generously and expect to get away with it. Hazard’s goal was a beauty but a more resilient side would never have allowed him to run so far. Hazard eluded four Arsenal players before aiming his shot past Cech and it probably typified the match that his 40-yard slalom began with one of the smallest players on the pitch outmuscling Francis Coquelin, supposedly Arsenal’s midfield protector.

This, however, was the theme of an afternoon in which Olivier Giroud’s stoppage-time header had little bearing other than to raise questions about whether the Frenchman should have been involved from the start rather than being used as a late substitute.

Wenger complained afterwards that Chelsea’s opening goal should not have stood because Marcos Alonso had flattened Héctor Bellerín in the process with a flying elbow and it was certainly an almighty whack that the Arsenal defender took to the side of the head.

Yet Wenger should also reflect on the fact it was Bellerín who challenged Diego Costa moments earlier when the Chelsea striker had the initial attempt at goal, and the same defender who was involved again after the ball struck the crossbar, looped up and dropped into the six-yard area. In those moments, not one of Bellerín’s team-mates helped out. Indeed, closer analysis of the goal showed Theo Walcott, the nearest player to Alonso, drifting half-heartedly back rather than showing any real desire to involve himself. Walcott’s lackadaisical efforts, coupled with Coquelin’s inability to sense danger, wer brutally exposed by Alonso’s determination to get to the ball first.

Chelsea had the mix of Costa’s power, Hazard’s nimble running and a midfielder, N’Golo Kanté, who did not give his opponents a minute’s peace. They looked stronger physically and, all the time, Conte stalked the touchline, throwing out his arms, screaming to the skies and doing a fine impression of someone whose shoes were on fire. To see the Italian is to understand why Chelsea’s players dare not lower their standards.

Gabriel, who replaced Bellerín, had a chance to equalise with a first-half header but Wenger acknowledged afterwards there was never any part of the match when the away side put their opponents under prolonged pressure. Chelsea, he said, looked like champions, playing with “full confidence – they’re powerful, strong and they don’t concede goals”. Everything, indeed, that Arsenal are not.

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