x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Stalemate with Chelsea marginally favours Arsenal

There was a time when this fixture determined the Premier League champions. Not anymore; this year it is purely about a scrap for Uefa Champions League revenues.

Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky challenges Chelsea's Florent Malouda.
Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky challenges Chelsea's Florent Malouda.

Third against sixth, and they ended the afternoon that way. There was a time when an Arsenal versus Chelsea fixtures determined the Premier League champions. Not anymore; this year it is purely about a scrap for Champions League revenues.

Though their goalless draw allowed Tottenham Hotspur and the in-form Newcastle United back into striking range, the outcome marginally favoured Arsenal. Chelsea remain seven points astern of them, albeit with one extra league game in their densely packed fixture list.

They continue to pay for the profligacy of Andre Villas-Boas's nine-month reign, points forsaken as the manager irked players by imposing a philosophy they rapidly lost belief in. The contrast with these teams' last meeting encapsulated Chelsea changes.

Back in October, Villas-Boas sent out his back four to defend on the halfway line. John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic were brutally exposed as the division's best counter-attackers scored five at Stamford Bridge. It was a jaw dropping game, principally for that strategic suicide.

Here, Roberto Di Matteo applied the smart pragmatism that has been the hallmark of his "interim" management.

The fixture sandwiched between two Uefa Champions League semi-final meetings with Barcelona he has established a valuable advantage in, the Italian rotated heavily and schemed intelligently.

Terry and Gary Cahill were the only outfield players retained from Wednesday's 1-0 victory over the European champions. The tactics, though, altered very little.

Di Matteo instructed his defence to sit deep and the rest of his XI to assist them. He knew Arsenal's chances would be minimised and enough emerge on the counter for the three points to be stolen.

Twice in the opening half-hour did Salomon Kalou collect possession behind Arsenal's risk-taking back four. First Bacary Sagna was permitted a balance breaking lean on the striker's back, then Laurent Koscielny dug his bypassed goalkeeper out of trouble. Just before the half, Terry worked his away around Arsenal's zonal marking to place a free header over the crossbar.

The home side had territory without precision. As a public decision on his future looms into view, the outstanding goalscorer of this Premier League campaign has lost his edge.

When Robin van Persie struck the outside of a post from three yards, you wondered if it was to be another blank afternoon. When he missed the sort of high-flying volley that has become his standard ammunition this past year you knew the Dutchman's drought from open play was about to stretch into a 12th hour.

As they have every time he has been absent this season, Arsenal missed the frequency and precision of Mikel Arteta's passing.

They are now without a win in the six Premier League games the Spaniard has failed to start, and his damaged ankle means he will not play again before its end.

Misplaced enthusiasm will cost them another key performer. Theo Walcott damaged his left hamstring early in the second half, sought treatment, then returned to action. One sprint down the right touchline was sufficient to aggravate the injury to a point where the Englishman struggled to limp off.

There is always some complication at Arsenal these days.