James Lawton: Remorseless progress of Mourinho's machine churns and crushes flickering Arsenal dreams

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The Independent Online

It was a pretty idea, Chelsea outmanoeuvred by Liverpool in the Champions' League, facing Ronaldinho and Barcelona with revenge in their hearts, and at home feeling the heat of a closing pack.

And who better than Arsenal to bring a touch of reality to the fantasy that English football was suddenly no longer a one-horse affair? But pretty ideas, sweet dreams and an Arsenal rescuing some of the best of their past, they are all the same to Chelsea. They all have to be assigned the same fate. They have to be crunched under the feet of men like Michael Essien and Claude Makelele and, before anyone points to the killer finishing of Arjen Robben and Joe Cole, let's be sure about that.

Unlike the old Arsenal and a Manchester United from time to time lifted by Wayne Rooney, Chelsea are never going to carry you to the stars. They're too busy wearing down anyone with the impertinence and the optimism to step in their way. It is not a thrilling process. It is a bit like watching a combine harvester churning through the corn.

Yesterday at Highbury, unfortunately, the Arsenal corn was either to too jaded or too green.

Arsenal may be making a splash in Europe, but they are history now at at home - 20 points behind Chelsea, out of the championship race before Christmas. The statistics, and the realities, weighed on Arsène Wenger so heavily that you could see Chelsea were doing to him what they were doing to his players. Squeezing out hope, even coherent purpose.

Three straight defeats tell their own story of sliding resolution. Wenger worried about letting Patrick Vieira go, and now we know the extent of his gamble, even it remains true that the best of the Frenchman in an Arsenal shirt had probably flown for ever. The most bitter truth for Wenger as Chelsea pushed their Premiership lead back to nine points was that the players he hoped would step briskly into the void, Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini, looked like stranded boys in this ultimate test of their competitive maturity.

Chelsea had a brief difficulty of confidence when Thierry Henry, resurrecting a host of memories, struck a post and they had to consider themselves fortunate when Henry was somehow rated active when Robin van Persie fired the ball into the net. But it was a flicker of concern when set against the unlovely power of their performance. More than ever Chelsea were the machine, grinding down resistance, sniffing out hope and putting it to the boot, or the elbow in the case of Essien, who increasingly makes clear why Chelsea were willing to invest £24m in a player so shorn of subtlety.

Essien has become the essence of Chelsea's ability to wear down the opposition. He walks the disciplinary line so relentlessly that Cole's passionate complaint about Sol Campbell's questionable use of his elbow was made to seem like the last word in hypocrisy.

Of course Chelsea have more than brute force and relentless application. But it always comes second to softening the opposition, pushing them into corners, challenging their physical resolve. It means that sooner or later only the greatest of opposition are going to refuse to break. United found the nerve to resist them in their only Premiership defeat of the season and Liverpool are working resolutely on the challenge. But for the moment it is plain Chelsea can call on immense belief in their system at moments of most serious challenge in the Premiership.

Henry announced that this was Arsenal's season as far as domestic football was concerned. Given that, and Wenger's fruitless resort to the old guard of Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires when hope was dwindling so fast, it is impossible to overstate the angst that must lurk in Arsenal hearts this morning.

Robben might have scored three rather than the one that so stripped Arsenal's belief, Cole scored one and hit a post. In the end it could have been five and there was Mourinho striding down the tunnel without the courtesy of a proffered hand to the man he has so relentlessly supplanted as the most persuasive foreign influence in English football.

Mourinho also refused to talk to the TV public after the game. He was playing his game, drawing attention to his own aura as the man who makes the rules. It is something to acknowledge rather than celebrate if you care for the grace notes of football. And perhaps await the revenge of Ronaldinho.

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