Big games define big teams, Arsne Wenger reminded us before this encounter. They also define big players and Chelsea may have to again cope without John Terry after their captain suffered suspected ankle ligament damage in a spiteful challenge by Emmanuel Ebou as his side lost to Arsenal for the first time since February 2004.
That defeat was pre-Jose Mourinho and now we are in the post-period. For his successor Avram Grant this was his first serious test after an impressive run of 16 matches unbeaten since defeat in his first game in charge away to Manchester United another of the big four. It wasn't that the Israeli necessarily failed this latest test although he certainly was failed by Terry who, for the 39 minutes he participated in this encounter, was something of a raging, pumped-up liability.
The bitterness was complete with Ashley Cole, on his first return to Arsenal since his acrimonious departure, and having suffered relentless taunting, appearing to make obscene gestures at the home supporters as he left the pitch at the end he was the last Chelsea player to depart. Cole may face further investigation.
Terry could have been red-carded before he limped off, having deliberately slammed the ball into Cesc Fabregas as he lay prone he was cautioned and then kicked out at Ebou before the latter eventually, calculatedly, retaliated. The Ivorian, who has a petulant streak, also departed through injury after being felled by Joe Cole, and suffered medial ligament damage to his knee.
There were nine yellow cards in all five for Chelsea, four for Arsenal and two mêles and while the home side will argue that Ashley Cole could also have been dismissed for cuffing Fabregas, Chelsea will argue that Ebou was himself lucky not to go. This was Arsenal's designated match day for their charity of the season, Treehouse, but charity was in short supply.
It was that kind of contest although, at times, a game of football was allowed to break out with Emmanuel Adebayor a forceful, relentless presence for the home side who were able to recall Fabregas, Alexander Hleb and the tenacious Mathieu Flamini from injury.
"I hope he has not gone over the ball but it was impossible to see that from the bench," Wenger said of Ebou while Grant added that the damage done to Terry will be properly assessed later today. The damage done to Chelsea will take longer to determine with Grant, who said a draw was the least his team deserved, claiming that "six points [the total by which they trail Arsenal] is not the end of the world". Wenger concurred with that and even added "I personally hope it stays a four-horse race because it's more interesting". His assessment, in fact, was that Liverpool had suffered the most from yesterday's results, because they lost at home, "but they are not out of it and neither are Chelsea because they have the quality".
That quality will be stretched. Although Michael Ballack will return for the League Cup quarter-final on Wednesday, his first game since April, Terry appears to be out to add to the injuries to Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho. But there was also self-inflicted injury with Arsenal indebted to two terrible mistakes. The first was the gift of a goal by the otherwise reliable Petr Cech, himself only just recovered from injury, the second was an horrendous miss by Shaun Wright-Phillips who volleyed woefully wide from inside the six-yard area with the goal at his mercy.
That chance, late on, came as the ball was inadvertently headed to him by William Gallas but the Arsenal captain proved to be the match-winner with another header. He, of course, was transferred across London in exchange for Ashley Cole and also arrived with something of a tricky reputation and was even accused by Mourinho of once threatening to score an own goal if he wasn't allowed to leave.
Gallas planted the ball firmly enough in the Chelsea net yesterday. It came on the stroke of half-time after John Obi Mikel had mis-controlled a mis-hit clearance and Fabregas released Tomas Rosicky who was eventually halted by Paulo Ferreira. But Fabregas' corner looped over Cech and the woefully leaden Tal Ben Haim Terry's replacement for Gallas to head in. If Terry had still been on the pitch it's hard to believe he would have permitted his former central defensive partner, and friend, such an opportunity.
"He pops up when you need it, when you want it and he's a leader," Wenger said of Gallas who also scored the injury-time goal that had rescued a point against United earlier this season. "That's the best definition of a leader. He shows that he's a winner." It's a definition often applied, also, to Terry although he is not the inspiration of old right now. He appears to be in what could be termed a "bad space" both physically and temperamentally.
Both teams struggled with that during the first period. Wenger called it "a bit locked" but it soon loosened up after Gallas scored. Chelsea had to respond and dropped the tactic of pumping the ball long maybe they thought Drogba was still there and found that they could penetrate by encouraging Joe Cole and Mikel to thread passes. A drive by the latter was palmed away by Manuel Almunia while the Spaniard also tipped over a fierce free-kick by Andrei Shevchenko. The Ukrainian was also presented with a gilt-edged headed chance but planted the ball weakly into the turf.
There were opportunities for Arsenal who finally found some of their free-flowing routine. Robin van Persie, on as a substitute, side-footed over before Cech produced a wonderful double-save from Van Persie and Fabregas. He was beaten, by Adebayor, but the goal was wrongly disallowed for a perceived foul on Ben Haim. It could have been costly for Arsenal, but it was Chelsea who paid the price. "Where we have improved the most," said Wenger, relieved that his team had recovered from its recent wobble, "is not to be dominated in the fight". It was certainly a scrap yesterday.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Tour, Gallas, Clichy; Ebou (Van Persie, 70), Flamini, Fabregas, Rosicky; Hleb (Gilberto, 77); Adebayor (Bendtner, 90). Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Senderos.
Chelsea (4-1-2-3): Cech; Ferreira, Alex, Terry (Ben Haim, 39), A Cole; Makelele (Pizarro, 65); Mikel, Lampard; Wright-Phillips (Kalou, 74), Shevchenko, J Cole. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Belletti.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Arsenal Adebayor, Ebou, Flamini, Fabregas. Chelsea Lampard, Terry, J Cole, Ben Haim, Mikel.
Man of the match: Adebayor.
Attendance: 60,139.Reuse content