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Arsenal draw creates three-horse race for third

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 0

A goalless draw did little to aid the Champions League aspirations of either club, but a heavily rotated Chelsea will be much the happier after a dogged performance ahead of their critical semi-final second leg in Barcelona on Tuesday. Meanwhile Arsenal created little and squandered the handful of opportunities which did come their way, and are showing signs of fragility, fatigue and faltering momentum just when they need it most.

Just one point from two home games in the past six days has opened the door for Tottenham and Newcastle in the battle for third place. Both kick off later this afternoon six points behind but with two games in hand.

Arsene Wenger made four changes to the side which was stunned 2-1 by Wigan on Monday. Laurent Koscielny returned to the heart of defence after his two-game suspension, with Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also back in the side. With Mikel Arteta gone for the season with an ankle ligament injury, Aaron Ramsey completed the line-up.

Szczesny

Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Ramsey

Walcott – Rosicky – Oxlade-Chamberlain

van Persie

At Stamford Bridge in October, a Robin van Persie hat-trick helped Arsenal come from behind twice to win a remarkable game 5-3.

Chelsea disrput, Arsenal disrupted

While Chelsea started the game compact, energetic and determined, Arsenal were surprisingly lacking in intensity. The visitors sought to disrupt Arsenal’s passing game, while the hosts were complicit in allowing themselves to be disrupted as Chelsea’s midfield dominated a first half which featured few alarms at either end.

Ramsey was twice guilty of holding on to the ball for too long (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Chances were few and far between for the first 40 minutes, with both sides having a handful of reasonable opportunities. Tomas Rosicky‘s early run and 25-yard shot produced a fumbling save by Petr Cech. Salomon Kalou tangled feet with Bacary Sagna in the Arsenal box – a less lenient referee than the usual penalty-happy Mike Riley might have been tempted to point to the spot. Theo Walcott‘s precise free-kick to the back post found Robin van Persie in space, but the captain could only find the side-netting as he dabbed the ball with the outside of his left boot.

Chelsea were largely successful in denying Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain room to run on either flank, but they were also helped by Arsenal’s hesitancy in the middle of the pitch. Missing the metronomic passing of the injured Mikel Arteta, too many balls went astray. In particular Aaron Ramsey was often guilty of dithering in possession, twice being robbed deep in his own half to set up Chelsea attacks. Midway through the half, Kalou nearly broke the deadlock as he galloped straight down the middle. Wojciech Szczesny charged out of his area and didn’t get there, but did just enough to prevent a goalscoring opportunity.

Only in the last five minutes of the half did the game suddenly come to life. From 40 yards out, van Persie’s floated free kick found Laurent Koscielny unmarked near the penalty spot, but the central defender’s powerful header rebounded off the face of the crossbar. A minute later, John Terry headed a corner over. And there was still time for Alex Song to deliver one of his trademark chipped through-balls for van Persie, but Cech got his angles spot on and blocked the shot.

Stalemate

Roberto Di Matteo adjusted his formation to open the second half, pushing Daniel Sturridge up alongside Fernando Torres in a 4-4-2. Arsenal were unchanged tactically – and equally unaltered in terms of their lack of intensity.

Walcott's injury could deprive Arsenal of a major source of pace and goals for the crucial run-in (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With neither side able to muster a consistent cutting edge, the only notable event before the hour mark was the forced replacement of Walcott by Gervinho. The England winger, Arsenal’s most consistent goal threat this season aside from van Persie, pulled up off the ball with a hamstring problem. Shortly after Rosicky was replaced by Abou Diaby, followed by Oxlade-Chamberlain’s replacement by Andre Santos.

Indeed there was more action on the touchline than there was at either end. Van Persie and Sturridge each had a couple of opportunities which could only be regarded as half-chances at best. And the Dutch striker had half a shout for a penalty after a coming-together with Gary Cahill, but it would have been soft. The Emirates crowd at least had something to cheer when substitute Ashley Cole was booked after being caught in possession by Song – but it said everything that this was just about Arsenal’s brightest moment of an insipid second half.

Koscielny's brilliant late tackle at least ensured a point (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

In the closing minutes van Persie twice found space for a potential winner, but first he miscued with his weaker right foot and then saw a shot from the other side blocked after he had patiently worked himself a yard of space. And when he attempted to turn provider, his eye-of-the-needle pass for Santos was just cut out.

So 0-0 it finished, and it was hard to believe that these were the same two teams which played out an eight-goal thriller at Stamford Bridge.

A point gained, or two lost? Arguably the former – only a brilliant, desperate lunging tackle by Koscielny stopped Sturridge from firing in a point-blank shot late on – but probably the latter, as the race for third place was thrown wide open once again, with Tottenham and Newcastle now scenting blood.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the game, Arsene Wenger felt his side had deserved better than a draw:

It was a very unfair result but it is a result. We had the chances and they had zero. Having said that it was a little bit of a strange game because before the game I thought it would be an open one – we had to win, they had to win. They decided to lock up the game and catch us on the break only.

He felt his team had done better defensively than offensively:

I felt we had a very solid defensive performance. Going forward we didn’t find our quick passing game and the regret we have today is that we played offensively with a handbrake and not as clean technically as we can do. That is why we didn’t open them up enough. It was a bit similar to what we saw against Wigan and that’s a regret I have today.

His initial prognosis on Theo Walcott’s injury was a pessimistic one:

It looks like a serious hamstring. First we assessed the hamstring, he wanted to go on and stay on the pitch, and I think he should have gone off straight away because the second time it was a real hamstring [injury]. I think now for him it will be tough to come back before the end of the season. It is usually 21 days [minimum]. He should be OK to play for England – he just will have a good rest.

And he summed up what Arsenal need to do now in the race for the Champions League places:

What it means is that we have to win the rest of our games and we have to look at the results over the weekend as well.

Arsenal were curiously flat for the majority of this game, only really offering a concerted goal threat in the last few minutes of each half. They were thankful that Chelsea started the game without Didier Drogba – so often the scourge of Arsenal sides past – and for a clean sheet arising from the restoration of their first-choice back four. Wojciech Szczesny did not have a meaningful save to make throughout the game.

Laurent Koscielny in particular was a quick, strong and reassuring presence against the pace of Sturridge and Torres. His high, reaching challenge to deny the former late on was risky but magnificently executed to deny a clear scoring chance. And he was unlucky not to have got on the scoresheet himself with his first-half header.

Where Arsenal struggled most was in midfield. Tomas Rosicky was inventive for an hour and Alex Song was solid, but Aaron Ramsey continues to struggle for form and confidence, resulting in slow decision-making which contributed to his tendency to be caught in possession. Neither Oxlade-Chamberlain nor Walcott were able to offer much either with or without the ball as Chelsea defended their lines with great tenacity. With the latter’s injury likely to be season-ending, Arsenal are down to the bare bones in terms of creative options.

Arsenal also clearly missed the efficiency and calm which Mikel Arteta brings to the engine room. This was the sixth game they have played without him this season, and only their second point in those games.

Although kept quiet for much of the game, Robin van Persie had enough reasonable opportunities that he will be disappointed not to have scored at least once. There is a certain sharpness lacking in his finishing right now, and he has now gone seven games without a goal from open play.

Arsenal’s strength at home has been the bedrock of their recovery this season – only the two Manchester clubs have more points from home games this season – but they have faltered at a critical juncture, taking just a single point from the games against Wigan and Chelsea this week. They will need to arrest this precipitous decline when they travel to Stoke next Saturday for what is guaranteed to be a feisty fixture. Momentum is everything at this time of the season, and Arsenal’s has suddenly vanished just as the injuries start to pile up. They may have the benefit of points in the bank, but there is still much work to be done if third spot – or even fourth – is to be secured.

Arsenal man of the match: Laurent Koscielny. Looked refreshed after his enforced two-game absence. Assured in defence, and a brilliant last-ditch tackle late on to deny Sturridge a potential winning goal.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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