After eight minutes, the first corner they had to defend saw Thomas Vermaelen lose John Terry as the ball was drilled over. The Chelsea captain flicked a header to the far post where Drogba was left completely unmarked and, with only the goalkeeper to beat from a couple of yards out, he made no mistake in putting the Blues ahead. Arsenal tried to regroup and did manage to exert some pressure on the home team but 15 minutes later, a Frank Lampard clearance found Drogba on the right wing. Cutting inside, neither Gael Clichy nor Vermaelen could muster a meaningful challenge and he fired home Chelsea’s second, and killer, goal.
To say that giving teams like Manchester United and Chelsea two-goal starts makes life difficult is something of an understatement. Through poor defending, Arsenal gave themselves a mountain to climb at Stamford Bridge today and the home team were not made to work nearly hard enough for their two-goal advantage.
To their credit, after the set-back of the first half-hour, Arsene Wenger’s men did keep going and tried to find a way back into the game. Chelsea seemed happy to sit on their lead but that plan began to look a little shaky towards the middle of the second half when the Gunners turned their possession advantage into real pressure and the Blues seemed to be back-peddling somewhat. Had Arsenal pulled a goal back during this period, a draw might have been a possibility. The turning point came when an unsighted Petr Cech made a smart save from a Cesc Fabregas freekick that came through a forest of legs. That seemed to be Arsenal’s best chance of the game and, after that, Chelsea steadied their ship and played out the remainder of the match with relative ease.
Whilst it was heartening to see the Gunners summon a performance that was a good deal more spirited than last week’s against Manchester United, it was disappointing that they never really managed to hurt Chelsea. Even when half-chances were created, Petr Cech never looked in too much trouble.
In the final analysis though, the concession of two soft early goals made an already difficult task that much harder and, once again, debate will rage about Arsenal’s defence. At times this season, they have been inspirational going forward and, when lapses at the back have occurred, they have simply come back and outscored their opponents. Against United and Chelsea though, defensive errors have been punished mercilessly and no amount of attacking effort has managed to atone for those mistakes. It tells its own tale that, when looking at the table, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have all scored a similar number of goals after 25 games played. However, the Gunners have conceded ten more than both their rivals at the other end.
So, it would seem that Arsenal’s title-challenge has been virtually extinguished. Even in this season where slip-ups from the front-runners have been commonplace, with just thirteen matches remaining the Gunners are nine points behind Chelsea and it is hard to imagine them managing to haul that deficit back - and even if they did, it would rely on Manchester United suffering a similar reverse of form as the Blues.
Whilst the more optimistic supporters might still harbour some hope, those hard-nosed, cold-blooded arbiters of chance, the British bookmakers, moved their prices from a generally available 9/1 before today’s match to a seemingly more generous 20/1 in some places after it. Converted into percentages, the bookies reckoned there was only a 10% chance of the title coming to Ashburton Grove before the kick-off at Stamford Bridge. At the final whistle, that probability had diminished to less than 5%. Reluctantly, one has to accept that the bookmakers, never renowned for their altruism, have probably got their estimates about right.
As disappointing as it is to see the Gunners title ambitions disappearing over the horizon, there isn't any time for either the players or supporters to start feeling sorry for themselves. Apart from still having the Champions League to play for, ensuring a top-four finish in the Premier League is not something that can be taken for granted. With Liverpool, Spurs, Manchester City and Aston Villa all queuing up to take a place in the top four, Arsenal must protect the five-point cushion they currently have over Liverpool in fourth - and it is Liverpool who visit Ashburton Grove on Wednesday night.
A month or so ago, a home game with the Reds might not have held a lot of trepidation. Their form was haphazard to say the least and the beleaguered Rafa Benitez spent most of his post-match interviews fending off questions about his own future rather than being able to talk up Liverpool’s performances. But, even with key players injured, they have whittled out a few results in recent weeks that have seen them claw their way back into fourth place. On Saturday, thanks to a Dirt Kuyt goal, they clinched a morale-boosting victory in the Merseyside derby and pulled off the result playing most of the match with only ten men. They will be coming to North London on Wednesday full of belief. Consequently, Arsenal have no time to bemoan their defeats to United and Chelsea but, instead, must draw a very swift line under them and get their minds right for this next clash.
Following the Liverpool match, due to their exit from the FA Cup, the Gunners have a blank weekend. With no fixture, they will have a full week to re-energise themselves ahead of the first-leg of their last sixteen Champions League tie away at FC Porto.
A few weeks ago, the opinion was that the run of games against Aston Villa, Man U, Chelsea and Liverpool could determine Arsenal’s destiny in the Premier League this season. Only one point has been taken from the first three of those matches and it seems their fate might have been sealed and, over those games, every weakness in this current squad has been cruelly exposed.
As grating as it is to seemingly be only fighting over the scraps again this season in the Premier League, now is not the time to be conducting post-mortems. The transfer window is closed and the squad is what it is for the remainder of the season. The team still need to do a job on the domestic scene and they still have everything to play for in the Champions League. The players have got to dust themselves down and show that they are worthy of wearing an Arsenal shirt