Somewhere in Cheshire yesterday, a grumpy 64-year-old man will have grudgingly raised a glass to his television and the rival manager he occasionally refers to in private as "old vinegar face". But you imagine that Sir Alex Ferguson, like Arsène Wenger, regarded the closing stages of yesterday afternoon with a grimace on his face.
How close Manchester United were to keeping their Premiership lead over Chelsea to nine points, the difference was a goal from Michael Essien struck from 35 yards with such savage pace and fade that it was good enough to win the game. In the end, it only earned Chelsea a single point to cut United's lead to eight, with a game in hand, but from the team with a reputation for the grinding victory, here was a sweet moment of football nirvana.
It brought the game to a remarkable crescendo. Afterwards, Essien struck the bar, Frank Lampard hit the post and, when Arsenal had secured a draw after Mathieu Flamini's opening goal, the squabbling began. Jose Mourinho wondered aloud at how a team 18 points off the Premiership lead could have played for a draw. Wenger, who had picked a 4-5-1 formation, simply shrugged and asked what else he was expected to do.
Even when their Premiership title credentials seem truly exhausted, even without Thierry Henry, William Gallas, Kolo Touré and Tomas Rosicky, Arsenal retain an appealing capacity to tweak the temper of the champions. Wenger came with a plan to contain Chelsea but even he must have been surprised at how well it had worked when Flamini silenced all but a corner of Stamford Bridge with his goal on 79 minutes.
We saw both sides' greatest strengths and all their many flaws. Didier Drogba and Jens Lehmann both collapsed pathetically under the most gentle prods from one another: two giants trying to demonstrate to the other who was the bigger cheat. But also we saw the incredible resilience of Wenger's young players his "under-21 defence" as he calls it and then the unbreakable spirit of Chelsea as they came flooding back in search of an equaliser.
On the line was Chelsea's 51-game unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge in the Premiership under Mourinho, Chelsea have never lost here in the League and his players responded magnificently. He left the pitch with his arm around the shoulders of the referee, Alan Wiley, at the end although the Chelsea manager spent most of the match in the blackest of moods with the official. An early booking for Ashley Cole had him storming on to the pitch and he might have reached the referee had the fourth official not intervened.
Wenger was equally incredulous about a foul by Cole on the excellent Alexander Hleb in the build-up to Essien's goal. It was Mourinho, however, who had changed the game with his introduction of Arjen Robben on 67 minutes. The winger opened up Arsenal.
It was a 23-minute appeal on behalf of the usefulness of wingers from Robben in a team that has survived all season without them. Mourinho was later tetchy when questioned about Robben's case for a first-team place; it does not fit in with his masterplan of a midfield with four central players arranged in a diamond formation. The team's weak link was self-evident again: how long can Andrei Shevchenko last?
It was testament to the frantic excitement of the final 15 minutes that the Arsenal supporters barely noticed the exit of Cole. For much of the game, it had been the left-back who had been targeted by the Arsenal support who, despite the restrictions enforced by the police, had still managed to smuggle in some props.
Jeered every time he touched the ball, Cole barely came within 100 yards of the Arsenal fans in the corner. When he got closest, as half-time drew close, the inflatable mobile phones eventually made an appearance. The big screens at Stamford Bridge had requested the crowd did not chant homophobic songs but it was, sadly, probably a little too hopeful. For the record, the behaviour of Chelsea's support was equally distasteful.
Booked in the 24th minute for a foul on Emmanuel Adebayor that was clumsy rather than malicious, Cole trod carefully. He was outshone by Emmanuel Eboué at right-back for Arsenal, although the same could not be said for Philippe Senderos who seems to tremble at the sight of Drogba. In the first half, Lampard struck a post and Cesc Fabregas cleared an Essien shot off the line.
As Mourinho prepared to send on Robben and Shaun Wright-Phillips we witnessed an exchange that even Wenger described as "comedy". Lehmann put a glove to Drogba's back and the striker collapsed theatrically to the floor. Then Drogba ran into Lehmann and, after a pause to decide, the German hit the deck. There was laughter when the incident was replayed and the booking both earned was the right decision.
Robben's introduction changed the game, and, where Lampard had struggled, he dominated Eboué. On 71 minutes, Robben picked up a daft loose pass from Senderos and beat two defenders before unleashing a shot that Lehmann parried. Gilberto Silva scooped the ball away from Drogba just in time.
Arsenal's goal was all the more remarkable given Robben's influence and, in Flamini, it came from an unlikely source. He received the ball from Hleb on the edge of the area and, when the he gave it back to him, was left unmarked. As Chelsea waited for the ball into the box, it was cut back to Flamini who struck a low shot past Hilario.
Mourinho was already urging Chelsea forward with great sweeps of his arm as Arsenal's players celebrated. With six minutes left, Lampard laid the ball off to Essien, relocated to right-back, and he struck a shot that started outside the post and drifted back in. The frenzy did not stop there. Chelsea pressed for the kill they will not be able to afford many more draws like this.
Goals: Flamini (79) 0-1, Essien (84) 1-1.
Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Hilario; Geremi (Wright-Phillips, 67), Terry, Carvalho, A Cole; Makelele; Essien, Ballack, Lampard; Shevchenko (Robben, 67), Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hedman (gk), Boulahrouz, Mikel.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Lehmann; Eboué, Senderos, Djourou, Clichy; Gilberto; Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Van Persie (Ljungberg, 84); Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Baptista, Hoyte, Walcott.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Chelsea A Cole, Drogba; Arsenal: Flamini, Lehmann.
Man of the match: Gilberto.
Attendance: 41,917.Reuse content