Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

Can Mathieu Flamini’s grit get Arsenal back into the Premier League title race?

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LONDON — Coming on for Jack Wilshere in the 43rd minute, Mathieu Flamini’s second spell at Arsenal started in the exact manner you would’ve expected.

Crunching tackles, grit, determination and a hard-fought win in the North London derby was the perfect stage to show off what Flamini does best.

The destroyer is back and boy, Arsenal have missed him.

Returning this week on a free transfer after five-years at AC Milan, Flamini has been missed by Arsenal ever since he left in 2008. He may not be the most skillful or talented player in the world but he does all of the dirty things that keep the Gunners ticking over. He presses, tackles, organizes, harasses the opposition and leads by example.

(MORE: Arsenal 1-0 Spurs; Giroud’s goals continue as Gunners grind out win)

Many people questioned Arsenal manger Arsene Wenger for bringing back 29-year-old Flamini on a free, as fans and pundits continued to scoff at the Gunners lack of transfer of activity. But adding the experienced Frenchman could be a masterstroke after his display against Spurs.

“I said it was a no-brainer. I’m just sorry that it didn’t cost $35 million,” Wenger joked. “His overall performance on the pitch was exceptional, he hasn’t played since May but overall his performance was very convincing.”

As Arsenal and Tottenham’s players walked off the pitch at half time on Sunday, Flamini remained. He had only just come on as a substitute for Wilshere two minutes before the break and was ready to roll. So, as the sprinklers swung their vapor across the immaculate Emirates pitch, Flamini stayed out on his own to perform shuttle runs and get a touch on the ball.

His commitment to the cause was there for everyone to see and it’s something that’s been sorely missed by Arsenal.

source: AP
Flamini’s destructive nature in the engine room is exactly what Arsenal need.

In the 54th minute Flamini went flying into a tackle with Danny Rose midway through his own half and was rightly booked for an extremely rash challenge. The sight of a yellow card for the combative Frenchman was greeted with applause by the home fans.

They’ve missed that.

That nasty streak Arsenal was famed for during Wenger’s most successful years in charge has vanished over the last five or six seasons. Visions of Martin Keown shoulder-barging into a striker, Patrick Vieira clattering into a tackle and Ashely Cole getting in the oppositions faces are a distant memory.

(MORE: Arsene Wenger aims big; “We need one or two super players”)

But Flamini’s second half performance against Spurs was a reminder of Arsenal’s wild side. And make no mistake about it, his presence after the break was pivotal as Arsenal’s spirit pushed them on to claim all three points. Flamini was screaming at left back Kieran Gibbs as stoppage time ticked away. He talked, he chased, he led from the front like a warrior in the midst of battle.

After the match Wenger spoke about that togetherness and claimed he always knew it was there.

“I was one of the few that never doubted that,” Wenger said. “This team has lost one game since March in all competitions. You don’t do that with an average spirit.”

And with Flamini’s return you have to think the spirit will only improve and the famous chant “1-0 to the Arsenal”, which rang out across English stadiums throughout the 1990’s, could also be returning. Wenger was delighted with his sides new desire and defensive nous as they beat their North London rivals.

“We showed aspects in our game that aren’t use to see from us,” Wenger said. “That means commitment, desire, defending. And overall their ‘keeper was their best player, so that shows we had the chances to win comfortably today.”

The last time Flamini wore an Arsenal shirt they lost out on the league title by four points in the 2007-08 season, the year before they narrowly lost in the Champions League final to Barcelona. And although Flamini’s first spell with the Gunners wasn’t exactly trophy laden, just one FA Cup and a Community Shield to show for his efforts, the French midfielder brings a certain je ne sais quoi that has been lacking in Arsenal’s engine room for some time.

Is Flamini the magic ingredient to success?

Earlier this week he returned to the Emirates, signing a three-year deal after turning down AC Milan’s offer of a new contract, his motivation was that he had ‘unfinished business’ in North London. He certainly played like that on Sunday afternoon.

“The story with Arsenal is not finished… I have unfinished business,” Flamini said. “I am happy to be back and I have come to fight and win titles.”

And Flamini’s style separates him from the rest of Arsenal’s midfielders as Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey are all ball-playing midfielders who can get stuck in when need be, but that tough-tackling approach doesn’t define them.

(MORE: Olivier Giroud the hero again… Do Arsenal need a new striker?)

Flamini is purely a no-nonsense midfielder. His job is to win the ball and give it to others to create. That is what Arsenal need this season as they aim to not just make the top four, but win the title.

“What Arsene made clear with me is that we are fighting for the title,” Flamini said. “Not fourth place and qualification for the Champions League. This is a big club with big ambitions for the title.”

A statement of intent from the new man who will put his body on the line, week in, week out, to try and deliver the Gunners first trophy since 2005. We’ve talked about his penchant for tackling above all else but Flamini can still stroke the ball around midfield with great accuracy. The former Marseille man had a pass accuracy rate of 85 percent during his 102 games with Gunners before he packed his bags for the San Siro in 2008. But his appetite for destruction is what should excite Arsenal fans.

Many would argue that Arsenal have missed having a true midfield terrier, someone who isn’t focused on playing attractive soccer and wowing the crowds. Flamini plays to win and at his destructive best, the Frenchman is perhaps the missing cog in Arsene Wenger’s flamboyant attacking mechanism.

Chelsea-Man City: Five stars who shone (and five more who went dim)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Cesc Fabregas of Chelsea celebrates his team's third goal scored by Eden Hazard (not pictured) during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Selecting Chelsea’s best from an all-around strong game was a struggle, certainly harder than identifying the men who hurt Manchester City’s chances of going atop the Premier League in a 3-1 match at Stamford Bridge on Saturday .

City had a lot of passengers, to be sure, as Antonio Conte got the better of Pep Guardiola in their first ever match-up (one that tactically delivered even if City’s players didn’t hold up their end of the bargain).

[ MORE: Match recap | Chelsea’s decisive goals ]

Forgive us for not going 22-deep with the player ratings this fine American morning, but here are 10 players who sincerely impacted the match for better or worse.

Stars who shone…

Diego Costa — Chelsea’s big forward was an absolute force, and would deserve his shine on the basis of his goal alone. His classy chest trap of Cesc Fabregas’ fantastic long offering allowed him the moment to boss Nicolas Otamendi, and the finish past Claudio Bravo was no problem. Then he turned well to play Willian in for the second goal, completing his day with an assist before walking off injured.

N'Golo KanteWe’re unsure the Chelsea engine has truly poor games, to be honest, and the French midfielder again showed his class (even if there’s some debate as to whether his risky but successful first-half tackle on Ilkay Gundogan could’ve been ruled a penalty). This is the sort of player who bears watching off the ball, because he’s likely going to where the opposition is trying to place it.

Cesc Fabregas — Set up Costa’s opening goal, and could’ve easily had a second assist when Eden Hazard darted around Bravo only to opt for a pass rather than a tight-angled shot on goal. Conte’s inspired decision to start him will be lauded in the fallout.

Cesar Azpilicueta — The least heralded of Chelsea’s backs was lively in the win, and had spells in which he was in charge of his side of the field. Well done, Dave.

Kevin De Bruyne (for 89 minutes and 59 seconds) — Hear me out… Can one moment quash a match with plenty of bright moments? The Belgian star was very good for Chelsea, apart from missing a sitter on the doorstep. De Bruyne’s lunging effort could’ve made it 2-0, as KDB was inches from scoring but couldn’t keep his body forward enough during the lunge. He’s gotta slide, unfortunately, and doesn’t (doubly so).


 

…And those who went dim

Nicolas Otamendi — He’ll need to turn the page on this one in a hurry. Otamendi was victimized by Costa on the first goal, and then caught in no man’s land on the second. A rough day for a strong player.

Gary Cahill — Yeah, it’s a bit easy to call out a man who scored an own goal, especially one who cleared a later effort off the line, but the Englishman’s finish behind his keeper was a poor decision to use the wrong foot. And it put his team down a goal.

Sergio Aguero — Far too little to like from the Man City man, who added a heaping of injury to his insulting night when he committed a horror tackle on David Luiz late. Sent off, this means a chance for Kelechi Iheanacho to shine in perhaps several matches. A striker of his quality has to find a goal in matches like this, or face criticism.

Fernandinho — On the same note, here’s a man who didn’t have a poor match on the pitch but cost his team big with a hands to the throat of Fabregas and a shove over the advertising boards that made the red card unavoidable for Anthony Taylor. These next few games will be difficult for City.

Claudio Bravo —  Perhaps a bit harsh, but City wants to win the Champions League and Premier League. A top-end goalkeeper has to find a way to stop that second goal. Dare-we-say that Joe Hart is a better shot-stopper than the Chilean?

Follow @NicholasMendola

Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Man City

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Chelsea beat Man City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday with Antonio Conte‘s men putting down a big marker in their title push.

[ MORE: Recap as Chelsea win ]

Diego Costa, Willian and Eden Hazard scored Chelsea’s goal as the Blues have now won eight-straight games and in turn they put Pep Guardiola and City in their place.

Here’s what we learned from a gripping, absorbing encounter.


WING BACK BATTLE

Both teams opted for wing backs and the result was a bit chaotic.

For Man City they had attacking wingers in Jesus Navas and Leroy Sane in the wide position and they just looked so uncomfortable in those defensive positions. Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses grew in stature as the game wore on, although they had plenty more defensive work in the first half than they’ve had in recent months since Chelsea switched to a 3-4-3 formation.

Guardiola has switched between a three-man central defense and four at the back and it’s quite clear his players aren’t comfortable with either as of yet.

After making uncharacteristic mistakes in the first 50 minutes, Conte’s Chelsea looked very comfortable in the second half and Moses and Alonso both surged forward and looked much more adept defensively.

Guardiola’s gamble to match Chelsea’s wing backs backfired. Out of the four wing backs on the pitch, there’s no doubting that Chelsea’s two prevailed.


COSTA PUTS CHELSEA ON HIS BACK

With Chelsea trailing 1-0 at half time and barely having a sniff at goal in the first half, plus struggling defensively, it was time for Diego Costa to step up. He did. Big time.

The Spanish striker chased, harried and bullied his way into the game and Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones had no answer for his clever movement, persistent pressure and rambunctious behavior.

Costa has quality too.

The 28-year-old latched on to Cesc Fabregas’ perfect through ball (is this the 2014-15 season!?) and chested down before finishing to make it 1-1 and less than 10 minutes later he played in Willian to put Chelsea ahead. Costa has now scored 11 goals and added five assists this season as he continues to be Conte’s main man.

Late on Costa had to come off injured with what looked like an injured lower back and the Spanish international will be nursed back to fitness as his importance to Chelsea is clear.

If Costa goes down injured or gets suspended — he’s been on four bookings for quite some time and a fifth will mean a suspension, but he seems more controlled and mature this campaign — Chelsea will be struggling. If he stays fit and in form, they will continue to be favorites to win the league.


CITY NEED NEW CENTER BACKS

Quite simply, Man City were all over the place in defense.

With Otamendi, Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov pushed to play from the back by Guardiola, they never looked comfortable on Saturday and with two wingers playing at full back, they didn’t have the cover they needed when they pushed forward into midfield when on the ball.

Tactically, Chelsea got at City’s defense in the second half and with Otamendi on a yellow card for scything down Costa in the first half, he was walking a tightrope for the rest of the game. Stones was subbed out with 15 minutes to go and without Vincent Kompany in central defense, City couldn’t stop Chelsea flooding forward and getting in-behind them.

This game had everything. City could’ve scored more goals with Kevin De Bruyne somehow hitting the bar from four yards out and Sergio Aguero being denied by Thibaut Courtois and goal line clearances, but the biggest issue for Guardiola is sorting his side out defensively.

With all of their spending on forwards and midfielders over the summer, it’s clear City need to spend big in January on a center back (or find a better solution from within) if they’re going to finish in the top four and challenge for the title. City are just four points off the top but they’ve lost to Tottenham and Chelsea this season in a very similar fashion.

Man City 1-3 Chelsea: Eight-straight wins for table-topping Blues

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  • Cahill own goal gives City the lead
  • Costa, Willian, Hazard scores
  • City finish game with nine-men
  • Chelsea win eight-straight in PL

Chelsea passed their biggest test yet as Antonio Conte‘s side fought back from 1-0 down to beat nine-man Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday to seal their eighth-straight Premier League win.

An own goal from Gary Cahill right on half time gave Man City the lead but two goals in 10 minutes from Diego Costa and Willian turned the game on its head as City squandered chances and Chelsea put in a perfect away display with Eden Hazard adding another in stoppage time, plus Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho were both sent off in stoppage time as tempers flared.

With the win Chelsea remains top of the PL table on 34 points, while City remain on 30 points after they suffered a second defeat of the season.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

City had a penalty shout early on as David Silva tried to squirm free of Cahill and the Chelsea defender knocked the ball with his arm, but referee Anthony Taylor waved away the claims.

Chelsea then went close as Hazard curled a low shot just wide and moments later the first booking of the game arrived as Nicolas Otamendi clattered into Costa and received a yellow card.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Aguero then went close as he took two touches to settle himself and smashed a high effort in on goal but Thibaut Courtois pushed the effort over.

The game then exploded into life as Fernandinho finished Kevin De Bruyne‘s free kick but he was in an offside position and the flag went up. Seconds later Hazard raced clear and took the ball past Claudio Bravo but instead of shooting into an empty net from a slightly tight angle, he instead tried to pick out a teammate and City cleared.

A controversial moment than arrived as Aguero and David Luiz collided with the Chelsea man the last line in defense but Taylor didn’t award a foul. Aguero was denied from close-range by Cesar Azpilicueta’s block and before the break City were ahead.

Jesus Navas’ cross from the right was hooked towards his own goal by Cahill as he tried to clear with his right foot and it flew into the opposite top corner of the net. 1-0 to Man City.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

At the start of the second half City had a good chance to double their lead as Leroy Sane surged forward and set up De Bruyne but his shot was blocked down low by Courtois. Then at the other end a mistake by Sane allowed Costa to run into the box but his shot went wide of the near post.

At the other end Aguero nipped in to seize on a moment of hesitation between Cahill and Courtois but Cahill then cleared Aguero’s effort off the line. De Bruyne then somehow hit the crossbar from four yards out with the goal gaping after a flowing City move and that miss was to prove costly.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

In the 60th minute Chelsea were level as Cesc Fabreags (only in the team because Nemanja Matic was injured) sent through a perfect long ball which Costa chested down and fired home. 1-1.

Aguero was denied by Courtois once again soon after the scores were level as Chelsa continued to make uncharacteristic mistakes at the back but they broke with pace and punished City to take the lead.

Costa’s hold up play was sublime, once again, and Willian raced clear drilling home a low shot to put Chelsea 2-1 ahead.

Chelsea continued to live life on the edge in defense with Luiz and others making blocks and last-ditch tackles in the box. However, Conte’s men held on comfortably for the win and added to the scoreline as Marcos Alonso‘s long ball forward set free Hazard who raced clear and finished emphatically. 3-1.

Late on Aguero was red carded for a horrible challenge on Luiz and in the melee which ensued Fabregas was pushed into the stands by Fernandinho who was also sent off and City finished the game with nine-men.

All of that nonsense aside, this was a stunning second half display from Chelsea which keeps them top of the Premier League and underlines their title credentials, plus it left Guardiola and his players with plenty of work to do.

WATCH: Brazilian-born Chelsea stars score, honor Chapecoense

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Diego Costa of Chelsea celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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A day that began with a unified moment of silence for the victims of the Chapecoense plane crash was finished by Chelsea’s Brazilian-born stars.

Diego Costa pointed to his black “Forca Chape” arm band after scoring his equalizer against Manchester City, before David Luiz and Willian held theirs high after putting the Blues ahead.

[ MORE: Cahill’s own goal ]

Here’s the first, supplied by a pinpoint diagonal ball from Cesc Fabregas. Costa chests down the ball before taking care of Nicolas Otamendi to finish past Claudio Bravo. The forward was born in Lagarto, Brazil, and represented the country twice before switching allegiances to Spain.

Then came another terrific bit of service combined with Otamendi problems.

Then Costa sprung his national teammate Willian, whose blaze of speed set him 1v1 with Bravo.

The keeper probably could’ve done better, but the goal set up a poignant moment from the two members of Tite’s Canarinho.

Follow @NicholasMendola