Drogba dumps meek Arsenal out of title race

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0
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The Independent Online

It was fun while it lasted, but the Premier League table now tells the same old tale: Chelsea and Manchester United in a duel for the title, Arsenal and Liverpool scrapping for the final automatic Champions League place.

This defeat ends Arsenal's championship challenge. They were top on 20 January, but one point from successive matches against Aston Villa, Manchester United and Chelsea have left them nine points behind the latter who are back at the summit. Although Arsène Wenger insisted his team would not give up, Wednesday's visit of Liverpool is now about the minor placings.

The executioner was their old nemesis, Didier Drogba. Goals after eight and 23 minutes took his personal tally to 12 in 10 matches against Arsenal. Not bad for a player who, said Wenger after Drogba's brace at the Emirates in November, "does not do very much".

Neatly though the Ivorian took his goals a critical factor was, as in last week's defeat to United, the poverty of Arsenal's defending, with both goals easily preventable. Just as telling was the inadequacy of their attack. In retrospect Arsenal's challenge really ended when Giorgio Chiellini's tackle damaged Robin van Persie's ankle ligaments on international duty three months ago. Without the Dutchman they lack a finisher and a presence.

In his absence Wenger has played Andrei Arshavin at centre-forward (a telling indication of his real opinion of Nicklas Bendtner). That worked when the Russian was in form but after one goal in 10 games his confidence is low and, as against United last week, he finished poorly.

The comparison with Drogba, leading Chelsea's line, was irresistible but it was not the only position in which Arsenal were lightweight. Wenger dropped Denilson and Tomas Rosicky, both ineffective against United, and replaced them with the muscle of Abou Diaby and pace of Theo Walcott. Both were anonymous and withdrawn. Cesc Fabregas unconsciously illustrated one difference between the teams when he demonstrated the disparity in height between himself and Drogba after being penalised for a push. The referee, Mike Dean, did not appreciate the gesture and booked him. The irony is that it was Wenger, a decade ago, who pioneered the move towards footballers like Drogba.

Physique, however, has no effect on concentration, the lack of which on Arsenal's part caused both goals. At Chelsea's first corner too many switched off. Thomas Vermaelen failed to run with John Terry, Alex Song did not mark Drogba, and Gaël Clichy came off the back post as Florent Malouda prepared to take the kick. Terry, unchallenged, headed the ball on and Drogba tapped in at the far post.

The indefatigable Fabregas, outstanding in a lost cause, led Arsenal's response. Given a free role, he eluded Chelsea's attentions and created chances for Samir Nasri and Arshavin with sublime passes. Petr Cech, who looked back to his best, not least when dealing with crosses, denied them both. Then Arshavin again lost possession in attack, the ball was moved swiftly to Frank Lampard, and he drove forward. With Clichy positionally bewildered and Arsenal backing off, Lampard released Drogba who cut inside Clichy and Vermaelen to score.

Chelsea now had Arsenal just where they wanted them: chasing the game. Arsenal passed, passed and passed, but Lampard, Michael Ballack and John Obi Mikel threw up a protective shield they just could not penetrate. And, given the height differential, the aerial route was suicide, especially with Terry delivering an extraordinarily assured performance following his week of turmoil.

Arsenal upped their game physically in the second period – Wenger seemed infuriated by the way they were bundled off the ball in the first – but still lacked the wit and power to pierce Chelsea's defence. Bendtner, then Rosicky, were added and the former precipitated Arsenal's best effort when he won a 68th-minute free-kick, from which Fabregas drew a full-length save from Cech. Even then Chelsea came closer, Drogba thrashing a thunderous free-kick against the bar with seven minutes left.

A third goal would have been cruel on Arsenal but they have some hard realities to face. Afterwards Wenger pointed to Arsenal's dominance of possession and moaned that Chelsea "were efficient but had not provided a demonstration of football". The Chelsea manager, Carlo Ancelotti, countered that "possession is not football. Football is about attack and defence." Arsenal's defence, despite the presence of the experienced William Gallas, lacks concentration and is insufficiently protected by midfield. The attack has been left one-dimensional by Emmanuel Adebayor's departure.

There is also the issue of the goalkeeper, and their collective experience. "They are [aged 29], we are 23," said Wenger (below) in a rare admission that his team's youth is a weakness. He also seems finally to have realised Manuel Almunia lacks title-winning calibre but can now do nothing about it until the summer.

Arsenal remain a fine side but two wins in 16 matches against Chelsea is telling. It may be the team is better suited to European competition, where their energies will now be focused, but even there Chelsea and Manchester United bar the way. So it seemed symbolic that when a Continental-style flare was lit in the away end it shone brightly for a while, but was then doused by the boys in blue.

Chelsea (4-1-2-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Mikel; Lampard, Ballack (Zhirkov, 81); Anelka (J Cole, 86), Drogba (Kalou, 90), Malouda. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Ferreira, Deco, Alex.

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Almunia; Sagna (Eboué, 73), Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Song, Diaby (Rosicky, 73); Walcott (Bendtner, 63), Fabregas, Nasri; Arshavin. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Denilson, Ramsey, Campbell.

Referee: M Dean (Staffordshire).

Booked: Chelsea Zhirkov. Arsenal Song, Fabregas.

Man of the match: Drogba.

Attendance: 41,794.

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