Arsenal's rivals still in a league all of their own
It takes an awful lot to score past a Jose Mourinho team intent on stopping you. Chelsea came to the Emirates yesterday desperate to keep Arsenal out, on preserving their clean sheet and securing a 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
To break through Chelsea's massed ranks and tight lines would have required Arsenal - in the absence of very good luck - to show more quality, coherence or imagination than they managed.
Which is to say that Arsenal, for all their improvements this season, their new 2015 consistency, their likely retention of the FA Cup, are not yet at the level of this season's best team.
This match was framed in advance as Arsenal's audition for next year's title race, as their chance to prove to Chelsea and themselves that 2016 would be the year that they finally keep pace with the biggest horses, as Mourinho might put it.
Arsene Wenger, speaking at his press conference on Thursday, made the same point. "We have three targets," he said, "and the third is to close the gap on Chelsea, which is important psychologically for next season."
Arsenal, of course, could well be up there this time next year, with a few clever additions in the summer.
But this was their chance to prove that - to beat this season's champions-elect and make their improvement indisputable. And it did not happen for them.
The ruthless quality and instinctive understanding which are required for quality attacking football at the highest level simply were not there.
Olivier Giroud has proven over the course of his Arsenal career that he is a good and effective striker against almost every opposition, except for the very best.
Yesterday afternoon was not quite comparable to his nightmare here against Monaco two months ago, when he missed chance after glaring chance and was mercifully withdrawn and jeered off after an hour. But nor was it particularly impressive either.
Giroud caused not a single problem for John Terry during his 82 minutes on the pitch. Terry read his every single movement, won almost every header, tackle and block. Against a defender like Terry, a striker needs something extra and Giroud did not have it. Alexis Sanchez does have those qualities - though he did not show them - and here he looked like a player markedly out of sync with his French colleague.
Twice in the first half Sanchez tried clever through passes to his team-mate - the second was a backheel - but neither time did Giroud get anywhere near them.
Shackling Sanchez was a more important task for Chelsea and they managed that too. Branislav Ivanovic doled out three over-enthusiastic challenges and was only booked the third time.
Arsenal's only good move came through Sanchez: it was his incisive ball to Hector Bellerin from which Arsenal had their penalty appeal, when the ball hit Gary Cahill's arm. But this was a standard of defensive opposition on which Sanchez could not impose himself.
The same was true of Mesut Ozil, Arsenal's other world-class star. He is a wonderful finder of space most of the time, against teams prone to leaving gaps in between their lines.
But no manager is as miserly with space as Mourinho when he is digging in for a result, as he was here. Chelsea had Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic sat in front of the back four, with Willian and Ramires helping out either side of them. Ozil had nowhere to go.
Fabregas himself had a mixed afternoon: he gave away a few early balls, but played the pass to Oscar which ought to have earned a penalty. He was not brilliant in the tackle, but he did hold his position well most of the time.
Wenger said last week that he did not re-sign Fabregas because of Arsenal's "congestion" in that creative midfield role.
Whether the Spaniard would have been able to make a difference here, against Chelsea, is unknowable, but it is unlikely.
This Chelsea team is too good, too strong, too well-organised and too clever for the rest of the league, and, for now, for Arsenal.
(© Independent News Service)