Ballack: United are our only true rivals
MICHAEL BALLACK has accused Arsene Wenger of consistently making excuses in defeat and branded Arsenal's style of football one-dimensional.
Sunday's 2-0 win has left Chelsea nine points clear of Arsenal with 13 games remaining and prompted Ballack to admit that he regards Manchester United as the only realistic obstacle to the club's third league title in six years.
Wenger had felt that Arsenal dominated possession at Stamford Bridge and pointedly remarked that fans "did not get a demonstration of football". He also claimed that Chelsea had "a lot of tricks" and used their experience to commit a sequence of subtle fouls.
Ballack was blunt in his response. "When he loses, he always finds an excuse," the German said. "Football is not possession on the ball or playing nice passes. Good football is winning games and that's what we do when we play against them. We deserved the win because we played very effectively. It was our strategy.
"For me, good football is a mix of winning, mental strength, good football technically and also physically. I think we have a good mix in the team. We can't do more; first in the table."
Chelsea have now beaten Arsenal in four consecutive matches, scoring 11 goals and conceding just twice in that sequence. United have been similarly dominant over Wenger's team in recent fixtures, with Ballack revealing that Chelsea now regard Arsenal as completely predictable.
"We knew the way they would play," he said. "We saw it in the first game we played against them and in the way they played against Man United. It is always the same style. If you get your tactics right like we did I think you can beat them. This season and the season before they didn't show they were able to win the league."
With Chelsea and United now likely to go head-to-head for the title and Liverpool returning to the top four, the league table suddenly has a rather more familiar feel.
It might have taken until February for the established order to return, but those forecasting the most open and unpredictable of all seasons are gradually being proved wrong.
"It's a race between United and us, and we showed that we deserved to stay in first position at this moment," said Ballack.
Petr Cech, the Chelsea goalkeeper, added: "I think we have cut off Arsenal by this win and they will find it only very difficult to erase the nine-point gap at this stage of season, especially with the tough games they are going to play."
For Chelsea and United, a major difference is currently being made by Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney, the league's top two scorers.
Robin van Persie had looked as if he could be an equally influential player but, since his ankle injury, Arsenal's potency in attack has been diminished. Arsenal had played 19 games before Van Persie's injury and scored 55 times. In the subsequent 19 matches without him, they have managed just 28 goals.
The ability of Drogba and Rooney to produce in the most important matches of the season has also proved telling. "In big games Didier is always there," said Ballack. "We have a lot of big-game players and big characters.
"Didier's a very individual type. He has unbelievable physical strength combined with technical finishing; he has a striker's nose and is also a free-kick taker."
With Chelsea and United having each conceded only 20 goals, their defensive superiority over Arsenal, who have let in 30, is also stark.
Wenger largely attributes his team's recent defeats to experience and can point with some long-term hope at the respective ages of the 'big four' squads. After tomorrow's match against Liverpool, he also knows that Arsenal will already have played most of their main rivals twice.
The fixture list does still provide just a glimmer of hope for Wenger, although Chelsea and United are both now beginning to establish considerable momentum at this most crucial moment of the season.
The form of goalkeeper Manuel Almunia and full-back Gael Clichy is also under real scrutiny. Clichy was given a torrid afternoon by Nani last week in the 3-1 defeat by United and stood off Drogba on Sunday for the second goal. In the circumstances, his message after the match was bullish.
"It is always difficult to play against Chelsea because even if you have the ball and you feel like you are playing better than them, they let you play but they have a strong striker up front in Drogba, who can play alone for the 90 minutes," said Clichy.
"It is even more complicated now to win the league but we have seen since the start of the season, everyone can drop points against anyone.
"You have to go again and dig in. It is not finished." (© Daily Telegraph, London)