Chelsea, Arsenal play goalless in cagey first leg encounter

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Chelsea manager Antonio Conte backed the video assistant referee (VAR) system after his side’s goalless draw with Arsenal in their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg.

Referee Martin Atkinson consulted the VAR on two Chelsea penalty claims, when Victor Moses tangled with Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the first half and for Danny Welbeck’s last-minute challenge on Cesc Fabregas, but he was satisfied enough with the evidence relayed to him not to award a spot-kick.

“I am very positive about VAR because when there is a big doubt during the game it is right the referee and the other referee watch the video to check and make the best decision,” Conte said.

“I think everyone wants less mistakes during the game and I think this could be very positive for sure.”

The two sides will meet in the second leg at Emirates Stadium on 24 January after Arsenal showed resilience following Sunday’s FA Cup third-round defeat by Nottingham Forest to frustrate a strong Chelsea team.

“It was a good performance,” Gunners manager Arsene Wenger said.

“We were well organised. It was a good draw and we have to finish the job.”

Arsenal were the beneficiaries of careless Chelsea finishing, with Fabregas and Andreas Christensen culprits with poor headed efforts, while keeper David Ospina saved well from Moses and Alvaro Morata.

Alexandre Lacazette blazed Arsenal’s best chance over the bar in the first half but there was no doubt they were happier with the result to set up the second leg at Emirates Stadium.

After making its debut in Monday’s FA Cup third-round tie between Brighton and Crystal Palace, the video assistant referee was once again used at Stamford Bridge – and it provided moments of frustration, confusion and tension.

Referee Atkinson consulted it to adjudicate a first-half incident before a set-piece when Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta clashed with Calum Chambers, eventually lecturing the pair, and again when Maitland-Niles tumbled under a challenge from Moses.

It resulted in a brief delay, with Arsenal’s fans chanting “VAR”, before Atkinson stuck with his original decision – but there was an anxious moment for Arsenal in the closing minutes when Welbeck made a tackle which needed to be perfectly timed in the area on Fabregas.

It was then when another sight that will be become increasingly familiar was witnessed, with Chelsea manager Conte effectively appealing to fourth official Jon Moss for VAR by making the shape of a television screen.

A long delay, some would argue too long, ensued before Atkinson delivered what was clearly the correct decision – no penalty.

“You have to improve and understand that when you start to use VAR you then need to add more extra time,” Conte said. “When there are doubts about two situations in the game then the extra time is seven, eight or nine minutes.”

Wenger added: “It was interesting. It was a cause of anxiety as it took a bit of time to make the second decision with Welbeck and Fabregas, but overall it worked well.

“But between the penalty action or penalty not action, with the time taken it would have been strange to come back to the penalty.”

Chelsea had the opportunities to build an advantage for the second leg – but found Arsenal in resilient mood and wasted the chances that presented themselves.

Arsenal needed a show of strength after Sunday’s embarrassing FA Cup exit to Nottingham Forest and showed steel, with Shkodran Mustafi and Calum Chambers excellent in defence.

Fabregas wasted a clear headed chance in the first half, while Christensen was also profligate – which led to frustration for manager Antonio Conte and an animated discussion with the match officials after the final whistle.

Full-time in this low-key game was greeted with virtual silence by Chelsea’s fans.

Chelsea’s quality is such that they have certainly not missed their chance but their carelessness means they have made life more difficult for themselves when they travel to Arsenal in a fortnight.

“We are about 50/50 because don’t forget not to concede a goal at home could be very important for the second leg,” Conte said.

“At the same time we know that to play at Emirates Stadium is not easy but we are ready.”

Jack Wilshere’s recent rejuvenation and return to fitness was rewarded with the captain’s armband for this match.

The England midfielder has started seven of Arsenal’s last nine games and his elevation to the captaincy was warmly greeted by Gunners fans, who always reserve special affection for the 26-year-old, on social media.

Sadly, after a performance which illustrated Wilshere’s growing confidence and authority, it ended with the familiar sight of him limping off through injury midway through the second half.

Wilshere was relishing his responsibility, pointing team-mates into position and directing operations from midfield, when a freak incident appeared to cause his latest problem.

He stretched to block an attempted long pass from Chelsea’s Danny Drinkwater which struck him on the foot, seeming to twist his ankle.

Wilshere tried to continue after treatment but it was to no avail and he was soon removed from the action to have an ice pack applied.

Wenger will hope the problem is not serious as recent weeks have proved Wilshere is still capable of influence in his side – and perhaps even with England once more if he can put together a sequences of games.

Arsene Wenger’s technical area ban meant he had to decamp to the Stamford Bridge press box to observe the action from among the ranks of the media.

Flanked by a security man and former keeper Jens Lehmann, now a member of Arsenal’s backroom team, it provided an intriguing close-quarters insight into the range of emotions managers run throughout such a big game.

Wenger remained relatively calm, even when Lacazette wasted a presentable first-half chance, only rising from his seat once during the game when Welbeck was penalised for a foul on Moses, but it was also easy to detect the strains and stresses.

He banged the table in front of him when Granit Xhaka committed a foul against Eden Hazard, shifted constantly in his seat, throwing back his head in frustration when opportunities came and went, such as Lacazette getting carelessly caught offside and when a promising free-kick position was wasted.

As he left his seat at the final whistle, though, Wenger will have been a satisfied man. Arsenal are right in this tie.

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