A spot in next month’s Carabao Cup final at Wembley against Manchester City was on the line at the Emirates on Wednesday night as Arsenal and Chelsea faced off for the third time this month. Unlike the previous two occasions (previous four, in fact, stretching all the way back to the Community Shield), this one would not end in a draw. Unfortunately, fortune favored Arsenal and Chelsea were down 2-1 at the penultimate hurdle for a trophy.
Untimely injuries to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and striker Álvaro Morata forced Conte to reshuffle his plans, switching from his recently preferred 3-5-2 to the recently once again successful 3-4-3. Veteran Wilfredo Caballero deputized for Courtois once again, for the third consecutive game, shielded by the back three of César Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rüdiger. Tiemoué Bakayoko and N’Golo Kanté were the picks for midfield, the French duo joined by Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses on the left and right wing-back positions, respectively. Upfront, Eden Hazard spearheaded the attacking line in place of Michy Batshuayi, flanked by fellow smalls Willian and Pedro.
Arsène Wenger also made a few tactical changes after the weekend’s 4-1 win over Crystal Palace, switching to a four-man defensive shape instead of his usual go-to move of mirroring Conte’s tactics. Mohamed Elneny joined Granit Xhaka and Jack Wilshere as the spine for the Gunners, with Mesut Özil pulling the strings up front for the wasteful Lacazette and the hard-working Iwobi.
At the start, it looked as if Chelsea were set to be the more reactive of the two sides, as we are often wont to do in big games away from home, but the Blues were quick to flip that script and invade Arsenal’s half of the pitch. Having switched to a back-four, Arsenal were having difficulties in handling Chelsea’s 3-4-3, in scenes reminiscent from last season when Conte’s new tactics took the league by storm. It helped that Chelsea were pressing well while staying solid, controlling possession, winning the ball back with easy, and pinning Arsenal in their own defensive third.
Chelsea had the ball in the back of the net just five minutes into the game, but Pedro, who produced a rather excellent Morata imitation in heading in Azpilicueta’s cross, was correctly whistled for offside. (No VAR need, even.)
Fortunately, a minute later, Eden Hazard got things spot on and Chelsea were in the lead. Pedro turned provider this time, slipping a lovely through-ball for Eden to run onto and finish with ease for his 12th goal of the season (now tied for the club lead with Morata). The move started with Kante, who else, winning the ball in midfield.
Chelsea followed that goal up with a typical lull in effort, giving Arsenal a chance to gain a foothold and eke out an equalizer. There was more than a heavy dose of bad luck involved as Nacho Monreal’s header deflected off Marcos Alonso, then Antonio Rudiger and into the back of the net, but questions about why Monreal was allowed to be so open should still be asked.
Back on level terms, Chelsea were back on the front foot. With the help of Bakayoko, Moses, and Arsenal’s weak defending, the Blues were able to keep up the pressure, forcing the Gunners into playing counterattacking football — and rather ineffective counterattacking football thanks to Chelsea shackling Alexandre Lacazette.
Chelsea were drawing closer and closer to a second goal when bad luck struck again, this time in the form of a Willian hamstring injury. New signing and, on subsequent evidence, not fully fit Ross Barkley took his place for his Chelsea debut, but Chelsea were never quite the same afterwards. Perhaps Batshuayi would’ve been a better move, though based on his 25 minutes in the second-half, with a grand total of 6 touches, that may not be so clearly obvious.
In the final minute of first-half added-on time, Arsenal remembered that they were the home side, and thanks in part to a poor turnover from Barkley, came close to scoring again. and tried to exert some pressure onto onto our goal. They got close to scoring again. Christensen got the slightest of touches on Özil’s shot to preserve the 1-1 deadlock.
As per League Cup rules, away goals only count in extra-time, not in regulation. The half-time scoreline meant that Chelsea needed a goal to avoid extra-time, but it also meant that Arsenal needed a goal to not get into extra-time and risk losing on away goals. Accordingly, they came out with a better intention for the second 45.
In fact, Chelsea’s second half performance had a rather night-and-day quality to it, especially when compared with the first half showing, as the Blues sank back and allowed Arsenal to play more and more as the minutes ticked by.
And yet, it was not any string of passes or beautiful interplay that would mark Chelsea’s downfall. Rather, it was time for more bad luck to strike wit Granit Xhaka pouncing on a most fortunate of deflections off Rudiger’s heel. Poor Rudi could not catch a break today, scoring the own goal that he knew nothing about, providing the assist when blocking a cross, and then missing a header from five yards out on a corner a few minutes later that would’ve leveled proceedings.
Arsenal’s goal seemed to take any remaining wind out of Chelsea’s sails and there was no strong response coming unlike three weeks ago when Hazard and Zappacosta turned the match around at the Emirates.
Conte used his two remaining subs to bring on Batshuayi and the aforementioned Zappacosta, but outside of Eden Hazard, no one in a blue shirt seemed capable of producing a telling bit of play by that point — should note the Bakayoko was quite good alongside Kante, but he’s not exactly a creative match-winner. Unfortunately for Eden, his one glorious chance ended with a stumble and a fall as the treacherous turf monster at the Emirates reached up from below the roots and dragged him down just as he was clean through on goal.
Arsenal were not quite good enough to take advantage of Chelsea’s inadequacies to further their 2-1 advantage, so Wenger chose common sense over valor and brought defensive reinforcements in an extra defender with Sead Kolasinac and an extra midfielder with Aaron Ramsey in place of forwards Iwobi and Lacazette.
The narrow scoreline kept Chelsea’s hope alive, but the Blues lacked the inspiration and certainly the goals to change the outcome. A few crosses, a few mid-range shots were registered before referee Michael Oliver’s whistle brought end to the semifinal.
Chelsea were heading home instead of Wembley.
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