Mourinho's men bide their time as Wenger hails 'worthy champions'

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The Independent Online
Even when Arsÿne Wenger eventually has to hand over the Premiership title to his cross-town rivals, he can console himself that the legacy he has built at Arsenal does not face imminent destruction. On the night when Chelsea were poised to grind beneath their feet everything that the Arsenal manager has cultivated, his team produced a performance of defiance that will sustain Wenger through the summer.

Even when Arsène Wenger eventually has to hand over the Premiership title to his cross-town rivals, he can console himself that the legacy he has built at Arsenal does not face imminent destruction. On the night when Chelsea were poised to grind beneath their feet everything that the Arsenal manager has cultivated, his team produced a performance of defiance that will sustain Wenger through the summer.

Despite that, it is still only a case of Premiership title postponed for Chelsea. For all the art and steel in Arsenal's performance, Wenger conceded that the trophy will belong to Jose Mourinho before long. Arsenal have another chance to delay Roman Abramovich's assumption of power in English football on Monday night by beating Tottenham, their oldest enemy of all, at Highbury. But they will not be able to prevent Chelsea's eventual triumph.

If Monday's game is won by the Premiership's second-placed team ­ and how minor seem Arsenal's problems now when compared to those of Manchester United ­ and Chelsea beat Fulham on Saturday, then Mourinho can finally bank his first English title away at Bolton on 30 April. A ground that epitomises northern England's brand of resistance as well as any other, the Reebok will make a fitting stage on which to crown a team whose appetite for victory in that part of the country was famously once questioned by Sir Alex Ferguson.

Last night was about consolidation against rather more local foes. Even though the changes at Stamford Bridge over the last two years have transformed it beyond the recognition of most, the inferiority complex that lingers in regard to Arsenal has still to be completely dispelled.

Against a Wenger side that refused to buckle, a draw, albeit one with far fewer incidents than December's 2-2 tie, was acceptable to a Chelsea team who do not wish anything to spoil their Premiership parade.

Arsenal have the qualities of Gilberto Silva to thank for toughening their centre and yet even the Brazilian was overshadowed by Robert Pires, whose blemishes on an impressive performance were three squandered chances.

The Arsenal manager beamed through his post-match press conference, conceding that Chelsea were "worthy champions" but eulogising the "education" his young players had benefited from this season.

There may have been Thierry Henry, but there was no delay from Arsenal in setting about Chelsea. In only the third minute Patrick Vieira turned away from Frank Lampard in the centre of midfield and directed possession out to Lauren, who crossed from the right. Jose Antonio Reyes outjumped Glen Johnson to present Pires with a clear strike of the ball, but his shot shivered the crossbar. You had to wonder what Henry would have done to a Chelsea defence that held out to the point of exhaustion in that heroic last stand in Munich one week ago.

In the 10th minute, John Terry's weak clearance struck Philippe Senderos and fell once again to Pires, who placed a side-footed shot just wide from the edge of the area.

Mourinho did not trouble the media with his thoughts after the match but in his programme notes he said he feared that his side's 11-point lead would deprive the match of "emotion and spice". It certainly appeared to have that effect on his side, who carved out their best chance just after the half-hour when Claude Makelele found Damien Duff, whose ball through to Didier Drogba presented the striker with a chance to beat Jens Lehmann. He stopped the shot with his legs.

Alone on Arsenal's left flank, Ashley Cole could scarcely have hoped for a quieter night on the occasion that was supposed to see him isolated in between the two clubs that both hope to secure his future. There was the faintest whisper of disapproval from the home fans, but this is a support that is too fixated on their first title in 50 years to let the saga over Cole's future distract them.

Pires' third chance of the night came on 58 minutes when Dennis Bergkamp strong-armed Johnson out of his path down the left and cut the ball back to the Frenchman via Reyes. He set himself to shoot and, as the Shed End braced itself, Lampard materialised by the Arsenal winger's shoulder and flicked the ball away to safety.

At the opposite end, Lampard was careless when Drogba's dummy presented him with a side-foot strike on goal that he swished wide. For the last 20 minutes neither side seemed capable of summoning the strength to deliver a meaningful blow. Reyes was booked for diving, Drogba artlessly blasted a free-kick over.

On the pitch at the end, Mourinho shook hands with each of his assistants in a gesture that, like everything else he does, was intended to come heavy with symbolism. If he was suggesting that the job has been done then few will deny Mourinho that, but he will hope to mark his side's coronation with a performance that is a more accurate reflection of their season of supremacy.

Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Johnson (Jarosik, 90), Carvalho, Terry, Gallas; Makelele; Cole (Tiago, 79), Lampard, Gudjohnsen, Duff (Kezman, 85); Drogba. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Huth .

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Senderos, Touré, Cole; Fabregas (Aliadière, 81), Vieira, Gilberto, Pires; Reyes, Bergkamp (Van Persie, 79). Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Edu, Campbell.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

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