In making eight changes for a critical London derby yesterday, Chelsea decided to put most of their eggs in the Champions' League basket, hoping Barcelona do not make a Spanish omelette with them on Tuesday. The choice of personnel signified that bridging a seven-point gap with Arsenal was not regarded as a realistic proposition, but they were still satisfied with a draw from what was surely one of the dullest of the 150 League meetings between the clubs.
Arsène Wenger, paradoxically, was less pleased, acknowledging that failing to win in successive home games – Wigan had brought off a stunning success here last Monday – leaves his team vulnerable to a renewed challenge from Tottenham and even Newcastle, who climbed above Spurs in the table after the latter's defeat.
The other blow for him was losing Theo Walcott for the rest of the season with a hamstring injury, although the winger should be ready for England's pre-European Championship friendlies against Norway and Belgium in five weeks' time.
Compared to the 5-3 extravaganza at Stamford Bridge in October, when Andre Villas-Boas's high defensive line was repeatedly breached by Arsenal's pace, this was poor stuff all round, in which the best performers were all defenders. The only three Chelsea survivors from last Wednesday's victory over Barcelona, Petr Cech, Gary Cahill and John Terry, were generally solid and neither Laurent Koscielny with a free header nor an off-key Robin van Persie could take advantage of the few lapses. Even better was Ryan Bertrand, a left-back who must curse the day Ashley Cole joined Chelsea from Arsenal but made the most of a rare chance this time.
At the other end of the pitch, Fernando Torres and the recently overlooked Daniel Sturridge could make no impression and Roberto Di Matteo must be desperate for Wednesday's goalscoring warrior Didier Drogba to have recovered from a knee injury for the second leg on Tuesday. "At this moment of time, I don't know," he said of the Ivorian's chances. "We'll have to assess the players tomorrow. He has an injury on his knee, so it's whether the progression will be quick enough."
The manager was getting carried away, however, in hailing a "brilliant" performance, even with so many changes against a side third in the table. Some would say the term "reserves" is no longer relevant, though the fact was that Chelsea included eight players who could not win a place in the first leg against Barcelona and would not expect to do so for the return.
To that extent it was a missed opportunity for Arsenal, whose manager admitted: "Going forward we didn't find our quick passing game. The regret we have today is that we played with the handbrake offensively,and not as cleanly as we can. We didn't open them up enough, and it was a bit similar to what we saw against Wigan."
Wenger was not alone in his surprise and disappointment that the game was not more open, Chelsea apparently happy to settle for a draw and maximise their opportunities in the last four matches, of which three are at home, including one against Newcastle. "They had three defensive midfielders in the middle, so it was difficult to play through there, and it was very physical as well," he said. "They adopted the system they played against Barcelona. They wanted to practise for Tuesday night."
Di Matteo's response was: "I think we had almost as many attempts as they had. They had a couple of chances from set-plays but didn't really create many clear-cut chances. They were playing at home, we were away, and we looked dangerous on the break many times. We could have snatched the three points. It was always going to be difficult from the first day, qualifying for fourth place, but we're still in the running and we'll fight until the last day of the season to see if we can get in there."
Arsenal looked if anything the more tired side, missing Mikel Arteta in midfield as Aaron Ramsey constantly gave the ball away. The few chances for either side tended to come in little flurries, starting with Van Persie jabbing Walcott's cleverly-flighted free-kick against the outside of a post. Nearer to half-time, Koscielny drifted free of blue shirts to head a Van Persie free-kick against the bar and the Dutchman eluded Cahill to latch on to Alex Song's perceptive pass, only to be foiled by Cech's one notable save of the afternoon.
Arsenal's goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, was no busier, his only task being to hold Sturridge's low shot in the 68th minute, which he was more than equal to. From there the game deteriorated into a succession of substitutions and yellow cards. Wenger admitted Arsenal should have made one of their changes earlier, the first time that Walcott felt a strain. He came back on after treatment but within a couple of minutes was down again in greater pain. "It looks a serious hamstring injury," the manager said. "But he should be OK to play for England. He'll just have a good rest."
Rest, as Cahill said afterwards, is as much as Chelsea can do amid what Di Matteo called "a crazy schedule" so they were grateful not to have collected any further injuries. This was the sixth of their eight games in April. Now for the most important of them all.
Arsenal (4-1-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Song, Ramsey; Walcott (Gervinho, 60), Rosicky (Diaby, 64), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Santos, 69); Van Persie.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Bosingwa, Cahill, Terry, Bertrand (Cole, 77); Romeu (Mikel, 66); Sturridge, Essien, Malouda, Kalou (Mata, 74); Torres.
Referee Mike Dean.
Man of the match Terry (Chelsea).
Match rating 5/10.
As luck would have it
Five times in the past two games Chelsea have been saved by the bar or post.
Against Barcelona last Wednesday, when the visitors had 15 shots on target to the home side's two, Alexis Sanchez chipped Petr Cech early on but hit the bar. Just before half-time Cesc Fabregas beat the goalkeeper but the shot was cleared off the line by Ashley Cole, deflecting the ball against a post. In added time the Shed End breathed again as Pedro's shot rebounded from a post in front of them.
Yesterday's first let-off came when Robin van Persie jabbed against the outside of a post from close in. Then Laurent Koscielny was left free to head against the bar. Chelsea survived with a second clean sheet.
Fight for third and fourth
Arsenal 65 points. Max 74
28 April Stoke (a)
5 May Norwich (h)
13 May West Bromwich (a)
Newcastle 62 points. Max 74
28 April Wigan (a)
2 May Chelsea (a)
6 May Man City (h)
13 May Everton (a)
Tottenham 59 points. Max 71
29 April Blackburn (h)
2 May Bolton (a)
6 May Aston Villa (a)
13 May Fulham (h)
Chelsea 58 points. Max 74
29 April QPR (h)
2 May Newcastle (h)
8 May Liverpool (a)
13 May Blackburn (h)
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