European quest keeps league door ajar

 

English FA Premiership: If this really is the season for giving, then someone should tell Chelsea. The Premiership leaders are notoriously stingy when it comes to handing out presents to their rivals and Arsenal were the latest to feel the pinch at Highbury yesterday.

Chelsea's victory not only throttled the life out of the Gunners' lingering title ambitions, it also slammed the door shut on the chasing pack just when Manchester United seemed to have forced it ajar with their own 2-0 away victory 24 hours earlier.

Jose Mourinho will not publicly declare that he has one hand on his second consecutive championship, but his reaction when Joe Cole made the points safe - a bout of furious fist-pumping, accompanied by a curious jig - was more revealing.

On the face of it, the chasing pack might as well give up now. Teams have thrown away gargantuan leads before - Newcastle anyone? - but, for sides like Chelsea, a nine-point advantage might as well be 90.

Mourinho's men are football's equivalent of a Volvo - brutally efficient, if a little lacking in style - and they are showing little sign of breaking down.

There is one last hope for the challengers, and that is the diversionary potential of the Champions League.

Ever since Mourinho first breezed into Stamford Bridge, loudly proclaiming his status as the "Special One", he has not allowed anyone to forget that he is a European Cup winner.

Indeed, the way he spoke about the silverware in those early press conferences, it was almost as if he considered it to bear his own personal hallmark.

Then his side were beaten, contentiously, by Liverpool in last season's semi-final and suddenly Mourinho was the Not So Special One After All.

He has made no secret of his fierce desire to win back the trophy and it would be no surprise if he treated every Premiership match between now and the Champions League second round to be nothing more than an irritating sideshow, and doubly so given their opponents in February will be Barcelona.

Chelsea's representatives at the draw in Nyon last Friday could barely muster a grimace when they drew the Catalans - elimination at the first knockout stage would be a financial blow, even for a club with their gargantuan resources - but the one man who seemed entirely unconcerned at the prospect was Mourinho himself.

The Portuguese is a master of braggadocio, but his claim before the draw that his preferred opponents would be Barca was not mere bluster.

Mourinho is the sort of hard-bitten character who regards any competition as worthless unless it involves a test against the best, and few would dispute the point that Barca are currently Europe's outstanding team.

Now Mourinho has the chance to explode that theory. Chelsea's manager may retain genuine affection for the Camp Nou following his spell there as an assistant to Bobby Robson - he even refers to his son, Jose, who was born in the city, as a "little Catalan" - but he was piqued by Barca's claims that they had been robbed in the epic Champions League tie between the clubs last season. He is desperate to scalp them again.

But Chelsea's focus on European domination might, just might, open the door for their Premiership rivals.

Not even Mourinho's super-size squad can expect to sparkle simultaneously on three fronts, and although their results have been as impressive as ever in recent weeks, their performances have lacked a bit of sparkle.

Even at Highbury, Chelsea sputtered. They were fortunate to avoid going behind when Robin van Persie's first-half goal was wrongly disallowed, and if Thierry Henry's shot had squeezed inside the post rather than bouncing off it, a nine-point lead might have stayed at six.

The champions have reverted to the sort of mechanical grind which characterised their form in the first three months of Mourinho's reign, which was liberally sprinkled with 1-0 wins.

Chelsea have scored just nine goals in their last six Premiership games and although their points tally from that sequence is excellent, their lack of polish at least gives their challengers - and Manchester United in particular - scope for hope.

Football trades heavily in peculiar ironies, and it would be especially poignant if United - who lurched into crisis after their early exit from the Champions League - were the beneficiaries of Chelsea's preoccupation with their continental campaign.

Their form - seven games unbeaten and counting after their victory over Aston Villa on Saturday - is ominously impressive and they are currently playing with more zest and enterprise than Chelsea.

Alex Ferguson conceded that it would take a phenomenal run for his side to even come within shouting distance of the leaders, although there was a hungry glint in his eye as he said it.

This season could stick to a predictable script, but there might yet be a sting in the tail.