In a curious and frustrating night at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal dug deep to provide the right response to their shock FA Cup exit at the hands of managerless Championship side Nottingham Forest last Sunday – keeping a clean sheet away from home against a Chelsea side that could have hit them for four or five at the Emirates Stadium just a week ago.
There was something paradoxical about the scoreless League Cup semi-final; Chelsea tend to be their most rampant on the counter-attack and Arsenal are at their creative, fluid best when dominating possession, but the roles reversed as the Gunners set up deep in a surprisingly pragmatic approach from Arsene Wenger.
Chelsea will feel they’ve missed a huge chance to clean up on their own patch, not least because the Frenchman fielded another weakened side, and it’s now Arsenal in the driving seek for the second leg where they’ll boast home advantage.
Imperative to securing that mission objective was a defender who missed the shock defeat in the Third Round last weekend – Shkodran Mustafi. Whereas Per Mertesacker’s vast experience appeared to have little impact on organising the young defence surrounding him against Forest, and his abundant lack of pace became a frightening flaw in his individual battle with Ben Brereton, countryman Mustafi was a fearsome pillar at the heart of the backline.
The improvement was evident enough through the clean sheet against a far better endowed side than Forest’s young and enthusiastic cast of academy products. But the 20-cap German’s individual returns were incredibly telling as well; he won the most aerial duels while making the most clearances, blocks and joint-most interceptions of any player on the pitch.
Although Arsenal offered incredibly little going forward in an underwhelming night for both London clubs, the 6 foot defender’s performance ensured the Gunners came away with a positive result from a match where the venue, the team selection and recent form all pointed towards a defeat.
It’s given Arsenal a solid platform for the second leg and amid a season in which they’re already out of the FA Cup and the Premier League title race, it could prove to be a pivotal draw in ensuring they pick up some much-needed silverware by the end of the campaign.
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