League Cup: VAR, Gunners' stout defence highlight drab Chelsea-Arsenal draw

After the first leg semifinal of League Cup at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Arsenal, it is fair to say that the IFAB (the body that determines Football’s Laws of the Game) will be pleased as punch with Video Assistant Referee’s (VAR) smooth introduction to English football.

Referee Martin Atkinson referred to VAR twice for penalty claims, apart from a first-half scuffle between Azpilicueta and Chambers. In the first half, Victor Moses clashed with Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Then late in the second half, Arsenal fans would have suffered anxious moments when Danny Welbeck tangled with former Gunner Cesc Fabregas. The verdicts? Both were clean tackles, the referee and VAR adjudicated.

Arsenal's Calum Chambers (L) vies with Chelsea's Alvaro Morata during the League Cup semifinal first leg . AFP

Arsenal's Calum Chambers (L) vies with Chelsea's Alvaro Morata during the League Cup semifinal first leg . AFP

VAR had scored two minor victories. One, it served as the main highlight in an otherwise drab 0-0 draw between the two London clubs. Two, its usage brought plenty of curiosity and intrigue to the audience, but was largely non-controversial — just the kind of debut in higher profile competitions that the IFAB was hoping for.

Among the most talked about points in modern football are the “what if” or “alternate history” decisions. The chatter surrounding Luis Garcia’s ghost goal in 2005 is a case in point. When IFAB approved the use of video referees in its mid-2016 meeting, it was hoping to reduce such instances. United States’ MLS and Australia’s A-League were one of the first few leagues to roll out the system. However, predictably, this has met with plenty of criticism given the fluid nature of the game.

In the 2016 edition of the Club World Cup, Real Madrid’s coach Zinedine Zidane and star midfielder Luka Modric voiced their strong negative opinions on its introduction. They weren’t alone; in the German Bundesliga, where the system has been introduced this year, 47% of league players wanted the system to be abolished.

The system, like the cricketing equivalent of Decision Review System (DRS), is designed to reduce obvious errors, but in cases where the decisions are not exactly black and white, can cause plenty of confusion and heartburn. Also, cricket is a stop-start game, whose rhythms are in tune with the technology, whereas, the very nature of VAR saps the beautiful game of its tempo and fluidity.

Nonetheless, speaking after the game, Antonio Conte expressed his vote of confidence in the VAR system, and its intention to reduce mistakes.

He didn’t share the same confidence with his attack, though. Chelsea had 21 shots over the course of the first leg; six of them on target. More importantly, they had nothing to show for in the all-important goals column for the second consecutive game — the first was against Norwich.

It was not all gloom however; no goals conceded means the tie is open in the second leg of the semifinal at The Emirates later this month.

Both teams lined up against each other in familiar patterns — with three at the back. At this stage of the season, with the teams playing each other for the fourth time, there would be few surprises. After the much-maligned, disastrous display against Nottingham Forest at the FA cup where the Gunners crashed out of competition, Arsene Wenger named more familiar names in his line-up. Possibly, he named the team keeping in mind that the League Cup is the Gunners’ only realistic shot at silverware this season.

There was also some buzz regarding who would take the position on the wing for Arsenal. A video clip, showing Iwobi dancing and participating in revelry in the wee hours leading up to the FA cup defeat, surfaced, causing much heartburn for Arsene Wenger. Would he drop Iwobi on disciplinary grounds? Alexis Sanchez is clearly the better player, but given his transfer imbroglio, would he make the lineup instead? However, Wenger — still serving his three-game touchline ban — threw his weight behind the youngster, and relegated the want-away superstar to a substitute role.

Maitland-Niles was given a continued run, with Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka patrolling the midfield against their opposite numbers of Drinkwater, Kante and Fabregas. Given how the competition represents a trophy opportunity for both teams, both clubs chose caution over aggression by naming sides light on attacking firepower — Lacazette and Welbeck for Arsenal, Hazard and Morata for Chelsea; the star forwards didn’t last the entire game either.

The Blues had clear opportunities to go ahead and build an advantage in this two-legged tie, most notably through Cesc Fabregas and Andreas Christensen. But much to Antonio Conte’s visible frustration, both were guilty of wasting the few genuine scoring chances.

At the other end, a looped Jack Wilshere pass to Alexandre Lacazette was Arsenal’s best chance of the night. However, the forward blazed his shot and didn’t bring Thibuat Courtois into play. Some other half chances also fell Chelsea’s way — most notably to Morata — but for the most part, Arsenal’s defence was excellent. For the Gunners, this performance represented a marked improvement from their recent FA cup debacle.

Both sides did have cause for concern at the end of the game though. Jack Wilshere, who had a lively game, hobbled off with an ankle injury close to the hour mark. Chelsea’s profligacy and the concern over the performances of Kante’s partners in central midfield is a headache that Conte has to solve before the business-end of the season. Whether his team will rue the missed chances in the first leg remains to be seen when the story continues on 24 January. After the final whistle though, Arsenal will be the happier of the two sides going to The Emirates stadium.

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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2018 10:19 AM

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