Chelsea edge nearer to title after Arsenal stalemate
Stalemate at Emirates as José Mourinho’s side keep their discipline
Chelsea left back Cesar Azpilicueta tries to block Danny Welbeck’s cross during the Premier League game at Arsenal . Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP
Arsenal 0 Chelsea 0
By the end, there was the unmistakable feeling that all Arsenal were doing was delaying the inevitable. Chelsea could have wrapped everything up by Wednesday if they had won here and followed it up with the same against Leicester City. Now the earliest they can do it as at home to Crystal Palace next Sunday and, if not then, the following week against Liverpool.
The only question is when the coronation happens but the victory parade is already pencilled in for May 25th and there was nothing Arsenal could do to make that feel even the slightest bit premature.
Instead, we had the result that everybody could probably have predicted when they saw José Mourinho had started with a team devoid of an orthodox centre forward. Chelsea, once again, showed their qualities of structure and defensive organisation and it is now five games since Arsenal last scored against them. Arsène Wenger has still not beaten Mourinho in 13 attempts and Chelsea stubbornly refused to be drawn into the kind of open match that would suit their opponents.
This was not a day when their flair players excelled and there were only sporadic occasions when Eden Hazard menaced their opponents. Instead, the Chelsea tactic was to keep at least half a dozen players behind the ball at all times and insure themselves against the threat of Arsenal’s counterattack, Wenger’s weapon of choice. Chelsea are grinding their way to the league title but, boy, they are good at these smothering techniques.
John Terry played in a way that made it seem implausible he was not even on the shortlist for the Professional Footballers’ Association player of the year award. César Azpilicueta excelled at left back and Arsenal, on the back of eight consecutive league wins, found themselves restricted.
The home supporters had to get their kicks in other ways and there were lusty chants of “boring, boring Chelsea” during the final quarter of an hour. It is the first time Wenger’s team have dropped points at home since losing 2-1 to Manchester United on November 22nd and we have to go back another nine months before then to trace the last time they did not score a league goal at home. Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez and their other danger men saw lots of the ball but never having found a way beyond that formidable Chelsea defence.
Did Chelsea come for the scoreless draw? No, Mourinho always wants to win but there was not a great deal from his side in an attacking sense after the moment, a quarter of an hour in, that provided the game’s most obvious controversy.
David Ospina, Arsenal’s goalkeeper, was certainly fortunate not to be punished after running off his goal-line, missing the ball and clattering into Oscar. In football, it seems as if any tackle can be committed on a player as long as he has already taken his shot. The rules, however, state something completely different. Héctor Bellerín prevented Oscar’s looping shot from bouncing into the goal and Chelsea were entitled to wonder how they had not been awarded a penalty even if an element of the sympathy was sacrificed because of the other occasions they resorted to darker tricks to win one.
Oscar can just about be given the benefit of the doubt after an optimistic fall in front of Bellerín but Cesc Fàbregas deserved all the condemnation that came his way when he wafted his leg in the direction of Santi Cazorla, then plopped to the ground in the vain hope that the referee, Michael Oliver, might be deceived. Mourinho has promised before we will never see this happen again but it continues to be a recurring theme and as long as that is the case their complaints about more legitimate matters will always be undermined.
Arsenal had complaints of their own, bearing in mind the incident later in the first half when Gary Cahill’s left arm blocked Cazorla’s goal-bound shot inside the penalty area. Özil was prominently involved during those moments. Aaron’s Ramsey link-up play with the overlapping Bellerín was another feature but Chelsea’s defence was a formidable barrier and there were only fleeting exchanges when the away team looked even mildly vulnerable in the opening 45 minutes.
With less of the ball, Mourinho’s team still created the best chances of that period. Fàbregas’s pass for Oscar’s opportunity was the outstanding moment and, seven minutes before the interval, Ramires ought to have done better after Willian’s though ball had given him a chance to take aim.
Mourinho gave his team a more orthodox look at half-time when Drogba replaced Oscar, who went to hospital with a suspected concussion. Fàbregas shifted into a more attacking position and Willian switched to the right, with Ramires dropping inside to partner Nemanja Matic.
Yet their tactics rarely deviated. At one point early in the second half, Willian led a promising attack on the right. Yet there were only Didier Drogba and Fàbregas who showed the faintest interest in supporting their colleague while the rest hung back.
Fàbregas had a mixed game on his first game back at his old club. A lot of passes were misplaced and, in the worst moments, it felt like that protective mask he is wearing to protect a broken nose must be hampering his vision. Fàbregas eventually removed it after one mistake more than he will want to remember. There were considerable boos every time he touched the ball and, unforgivably, one dunderhead decided the minute’s silence for the forthcoming 30th anniversary of the Bradford City fire was an appropriate time to abuse an old favourite. Equally, it should be noted that many Arsenal supporters applauded his name when he was substituted near the end.
The important matter for Chelsea was that they had edged another point closer to where they want to be. The substitute Danny Welbeck could not adjust his feet quickly enough with a stoppage-time chance and the fist-pumping at the end told its own story.