Chelsea yesterday completed a trio of beaten contenders this curious weekend, leaving United to emerge with their lead enhanced to five points despite Saturday's home draw with Bolton. Chelsea, who could have moved within two points, were brushed aside in a bruising Highbury game by a resurgent Arsenal.
After a grim late '97 Arsene Wenger's side are re-emerging as the most credible pretender to the champions' crown. Unbeaten in 11 matches since Christmas they have taken 14 Premiership points from the last 18 to go fifth in the League, six points behind United with a match in hand.
They won without David Seaman, Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown and, until the last 22 minutes, Lee Dixon and Ian Wright. Marc Overmars is running into form - not that he had much opportunity to show it yesterday - and Stephen Hughes is developing nicely. Hughes was their match-winner, scoring two well-taken goals after four and 42 minutes.
The 21-year-old's celebrations were matched by the club's. Having previously suggested he may move to further his career, he yesterday said he was ready to sign a new contract to replace the one which expires this summer.
Yet, despite all these encouraging signs, Arsenal do not yet look title material. Yesterday's match was often poor, passing moves were rare with basic errors and petty, sometimes nasty, fouls the game's staple. One foul, and subsequent error, was particularly significant. It came after a dozen minutes when Gianluca Vialli ran on to Emmanuel Petit's inadvertent back-header from a Chelsea clearance. With Vialli poised, on the edge of the area, to advance unchallenged on Alex Manninger, Steve Bould hauled him down by his neck and collar.
It was a clear sending-off, but Dermot Gallacher ignored Chelsea's urgent supplication to show red and waved yellow. The free-kick was wasted and Chelsea's equilibrium went with it.
Ruud Gullit, whose displeasure was clear, said: "Vialli was going straight for goal. He has to be sent off, there is no other option. It changed the whole game. You are sent off anywhere in the world for a foul like that. But the referee wanted to make his own game. In the last 15 minutes he gave all the decisions our way, as if he was making up."
Wenger, unsurprisingly, disagreed. "I am not convinced it was a red. Vialli is very experienced. He waited for the foul."
The match had already been scrappy, now it degenerated into a series of running vendettas. A more stringent referee would have filled his book, this one just penalised the more blatant fouls and administered unavoidable cautions. It was an old-fashioned British battle, strange, on the surface, given the presence of 10 foreign players and two Continental coaches, but the main combatants were local and the French newcomer Laurent Chavert looked lost amid the mayhem.
Most of the seven bookings (incredibly they did not include Mark Hughes) came in this period and it took Steven Hughes' second goal to calm the game's temper.
His first followed a mistake by Franck Leboeuf who both misjudged a Dennis Bergkamp flick-on then left his back-pass short. Nicolas Anelka fluffed the chance, but the ball came to Hughes who swept it past two defenders on the line from 20 yards.
The second was a brave header after he reacted first to Tony Adams' far- post knock-down from Bergkamp's free-kick. Hughes, who was making only his third Premiership start of the season, had said beforehand: "I desperately want to sign a new contract and I am hopeful of doing so in the next few days. There are just a couple of matters that need to be ironed out."
Chelsea brought on both Gianfranco Zola and Tore Andre Flo but made no impression on an Arsenal defence in which Adams was increasingly solid in front of Glenn Hoddle.
Chelsea have now won twice in nine matches and taken seven points from 18. After three defeats by Arsenal this season the portents for the fourth, Wednesday week's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final second-leg, do not look good, but Gullit, whose team trail 2-1, was unperturbed. "No way were they better than us. It will be close."
Probably. It will certainly not be for the faint-hearted.
Goals: S Hughes (4) 1-0; S Hughes (42) 2-0.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Grimandi (Dixon, 68), Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Petit, S Hughes, Overmars (Platt, 75); Anelka (Wright, 68), Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Boa Morte, Lukic (gk).
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Charvet, Duberry, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu (Granville, h/t), Newton (Flo, 80) Di Matteo, Wise; Vialli (Zola, 62), M Hughes. Substitutes not used: P Hughes, Hitchcock (gk).
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).
Bookings: Arsenal: Bould, Parlour, Bergkamp. Chelsea: Vialli, Leboeuf, Wise, Di Matteo.
Man of the match: S Hughes.
Attendance: 38,083.Reuse content