Arsène Wenger last night hailed Chelsea as "worthy champions", but only after drawing evident satisfaction from the stylish manner in which his Arsenal side delayed their rivals' coronation.
To the relief of Fulham supporters Chelsea cannot now win their first League title in half a century in Saturday's west London derby after the defending champions held the champions-elect at Stamford Bridge.
Arsenal's resistance drew unexpected reward as they moved four points clear of Manchester United in the chase for the second automatic Champions' League qualifying place after Sir Alex Ferguson's team imploded against Everton at Goodison Park.
Gary Neville and Paul Scholes were dismissed Neville for kicking the ball at spectators, Scholes for two yellow cards as Everton beat Manchester United for the first time in 20 attempts, with a goal from Duncan Ferguson.
The win left Liverpool still three points adrift of the final Champions' League qualifying place despite winning at Portsmouth.
This scramble for crumbs is of no concern to Chelsea. While Steve Clarke, the assistant manager (Jose Mourinho remained in self-imposed purdah) refused to accept the race was over, for Wenger it is just a matter of when Chelsea supersede them as champions.
"The fact they did not lose tonight makes them champions unless someone puts a bomb here, or there is a major accident," Wenger said. "They are worthy champions. They have been remarkably consistent and that is the most difficult thing in top sport. You have to respect that and what they have achieved."
"We are not quite champions, we've got to finish it off," Clarke insisted. "We're getting there slowly. It does not matter when we win it. We'll approach Saturday looking for three points then focus on the Champions' League."
Should Chelsea beat Fulham on Saturday the focus will move, after the midweek Champions' League semi-final with Liverpool, to the Reebok when they meet Bolton Wanderers. With that match being a late kick-off Chelsea could be champions before kicking off; indeed, they could clinch the title on Monday if they have beaten Fulham and Arsenal fail to beat Spurs at Highbury that night.
"We knew that Chelsea would be champions before we came here but we have our pride," Wenger added. "We have not had a disastrous year, Chelsea have just had an exceptional year. I think we will be competitive again next season."
At the other end of the table West Brom climbed out of the relegation zone with a point at Spurs while Norwich moved within two points of safety with a victory over Newcastle. The winner came in the fourth minute of stoppage time from Dean Ashton after Patrick Kluivert had levelled in the last minute for Newcastle. Norwich are now level with Crystal Palace, who lost at Blackburn.Reuse content