Monday 20 January 2020

Big hitters shadow-boxing

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 0

Dion Fanning

There was a time when a game against Arsenal would have been the perfect preparation for Chelsea's match against Barcelona. Yesterday was not that time.

Chelsea played their part by playing no part at all. "They adopted the system they played against Barcelona, they wanted to practise for Tuesday night," Arsene Wenger said afterwards.

Arsenal, like Barcelona, had the chances but they could not move the ball at pace or stretch the Chelsea defence for whom Ryan Bertrand was outstanding.

Wenger described the result as "unfair", claiming his team should have had a penalty when Gary Cahill appeared to push Robin van Persie towards the end of a dull game.

Despite Roberto Di Matteo claiming that the stats backed up his view that they had created as many chances as Arsenal, Wenger's side did more to win but not a lot more. They played with no energy, with the "handbrake on", Wenger said, and it allowed Chelsea to play in the style which may become familiar over the coming weeks.

Yet Chelsea's approach to a game they needed to win was a curious one. While they will go far by anticipating a complete collapse by Tottenham Hotspur, they might not go far enough if Newcastle's run continues.

Di Matteo needed three points yesterday, unless he has now decided that winning the European Cup is Chelsea's best chance of qualifying for next season's competition.

He saw it as a "point gained", directing any complaints to the "crazy schedule" which has forced his side to play an FA Cup semi-final and a game against top-four rivals in the same 10 days as a two-legged Champions League semi-final.

If Chelsea did win the Champions League, finishing third would be essential as the team in fourth would go into the Europa League.

Arsenal could still be caught and are demonstrating signs of tiredness. Van Persie had chances to win the game but he rarely appeared convincing, snatching at chances he should have approached calmly, then hesitating in compensation when he could have been clinical.

He was one of a number of Arsenal players frustrated by Chelsea's approach.

"It was a strange game," Wenger said. "Beforehand I thought it would be an open one but they decided to lock up the game and catch us on the break. To have an open game, the two have to go for it."

Arsenal's burst of seven wins in a row seemed to guarantee them a top-four place but they are stumbling towards the line now, pursued by Newcastle in particular. A Chelsea triumph in Europe could change everything.

Last Monday, Arsenal couldn't break down a well-organised and purposeful Wigan side and their performance yesterday was nervous as a consequence, Wenger said. Van Persie and Laurent Koscielny hit the woodwork in the first half. Van Persie would have expected to score his chance when he got on the end of a Theo Walcott free-kick but found only the post.

Walcott finished the day with a hamstring pull which has ended his domestic season but Wenger said he will be fit for England. He had used all his subs with 20 minutes to go but still there was little energy. Koscielny was excellent all afternoon. His early header from a Van Persie free-kick bounced back off the bar.

Even when creating chances, the game was sluggish. Van Persie was picked out by Alexander Song, as has happened so often, at the far post but he hit his drive straight at Petr Cech.

Di Matteo made eight changes to the side that beat Barcelona. Fernando Torres had the most to play for but he trudged through the game, showing no explosiveness. Di Matteo refused to be drawn on whether the injured Didier Drogba would recover for Tuesday's game and described Torres' performance, in that press conference style which mirrors Chelsea's current approach on the pitch (cautious, suspicious), as "dangerous".

There was nothing dangerous about the game and it was hard to spot the "brilliant performance" from Chelsea that Di Matteo claimed. Equally there was little that was unfair, the penalty claim aside, about the result from an Arsenal point of view.

They would have expected more from Van Persie but they expect a lot from him. When a ball was played over the Chelsea defence towards him, the crowd roared in anticipation even though it would have required a spectacular volley to score. He has made this seem ordinary all season but he couldn't manage it this time. He had better opportunities but wasted them, rushing a shot when John Terry failed to cut out a through ball and then moments later, trying to find the perfect opportunity to score but taking too long before he was closed down. He hasn't scored from open play since March 12.

Chelsea looked to snatch the game at the end but Daniel Sturridge, who had played with typical selfishness, was tackled by Koscielny when he might have won it. But Di Matteo's side had the point they wanted. At the end, Terry led the players to applaud the Chelsea fans and their mood was celebratory. Like the rest of us, they must have been happy it was over.

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