As the dust settles from the weekend’s fixtures, Chelsea and Arsenal can look back on victories that meant more than the three points they received. Chelsea’s win over Manchester United and Arsenal’s destruction of Wolves may have left them as the top two teams in the Premier League table, but it is the manner in which they were achieved that is the greater talking point.
Faced with a United team built to contain, Chelsea approached the match with a work rate they had not yet had to show under Carlo Ancelotti. With full-backs Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole neutralised by Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia, one of Chelsea’s most effective weapons, the overlapping full-back, was removed from their arsenal. Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Anderson gave United a midfield full of aggression and tenacity, resulting in Frank Lampard and particularly Deco failing to impose themselves on the game. Deco was dragged off after an hour and replaced by Joe Cole, but Cole was equally as anonymous as the Portuguese midfielder.
Didier Drogba was unable to dominate a central defensive pairing of Jonny Evans and Wes Brown, and so that left Nicolas Anelka as Chelsea’s most potent attacking threat and, fittingly, it was he who bagged the decisive goal. The Frenchman got the final touch on a free-kick that John Terry got to first, and the ball evaded both Drogba’s outstretched and offside leg and the dive of Edwin van der Sar. It was Chelsea’s perseverance that was most impressive in their victory. United rarely threatened, the best they could muster being a shot from Wayne Rooney that Petr Cech tipped round the post. Instead, Sir Alex Ferguson sent his players out to contain Chelsea and for much of the game they succeeded.
Darren Fletcher in particular was superb, but when the time came for United to step the tempo up a gear and peg Chelsea back, they were unable to do so. Rooney, playing as a lone striker, was isolated in the first half and in the second began to roam around the pitch as he often does to devastating effect. But without Dimitar Berbatov to lead the line, United’s attack was rendered impotent by Ricardo Carvalho and the excellent Terry. And so Chelsea overcame a United side that would have been delighted with a draw. Ancelotti’s men are now five points clear of yesterday’s opponents and have looked more likely to stay the course and take the title than the men from Manchester. United often wait until after the new year to kick start their title challenge, but this United team lacks the match winning players they had in past years.
The key to a successful title campaign is having players who make a difference in tight games. The difference between Chelsea and United on Sunday was a deadly free-kick delivery by Lampard that caused havoc in the United defence, while Rooney, upfront on his own, failed to make a telling contribution to the game without Berbatov to support him. Deprived of Cristiano Ronaldo, this year’s United side look more ordinary than they have in years. Rooney and Berbatov are capable of deciding matches. But moments of magic from Giggs, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes are increasingly few and far between, while Nani and Valencia have yet to show they belong at this level. Similar doubts have been cast over some of Arsenal’s players in the past, but their sensational start to the season has gone some way to eroding those worries.
Arsenal’s demolition of Wolves does not make them serious title challengers, however. The Gunners often begin in similar fashion, ploughing through teams with style and verve and looking like approaching the highs of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira. It is in deepest, darkest winter that Arsenal still need to prove themselves. If they continue this stunning form through Christmas and New Year, then Arsene Wenger’s men can realistically dream of another Premier League trophy. Until then, there is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the show. Unless it’s your team that has the misfortune of facing them in full flow, that is.
While Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and Cesc Fabregas were again imperious against Wolves, it was the newly-promoted side’s misfortune and sloppy defending that put Arsenal on the road to three points on Saturday. First, a helping hand in the shape of a Ronald Zubar own-goal put the Londoners ahead. Then, Wolves contrived to leave Jody Craddock outnumbered against the onrushing Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey, and the Croatian international took advantage as his chip deflected off Craddock and past Wayne Hennessey in the Wolves goal.
Gifted two goals, Arsenal sliced Mick McCarthy’s team open for a third and later added a fourth, but a familiar thorn in their side made its presence known when Craddock was left unmarked to head home from a corner. For all their wonderful football, Arsenal have conceded more goals than ever before at this point in the season in their history, and that could be their undoing.
Thomas Vermaelen has done well since joining Arsenal in the summer, but William Gallas still takes responsibility for organising the defence, and still fails to do an adequate job. Stripped of the captaincy a year ago, his leadership qualities have still yet to surface and relying on the Frenchman could be what lets Arsenal down in the title race.
With Chelsea and Arsenal victorious and Manchester United defeated, Liverpool need to show they still belong in the list of title contenders tonight as they host Birmingham City. Still without Steven Gerrard, Lucas needs to rise above the criticism that has been levelled his way and take charge of what will be a difficult game against a well organised City side. Jamie Carragher’s performances have also been questioned, and against the lively ‘Chucho’ Benitez, the Bootle born defender will need to find the Carragher of old to marshal the Ecuadorian. Carragher was never the quickest of centre-backs but that has been exposed more than ever this season.
A Liverpool victory would take them level with fifth placed Aston Villa, just one point behind Tottenham who occupy the final Champions League spot, but Champions League qualification is the minimum expectation for Rafa Benitez. Failure to make the top four would surely see Benitez sent packing, but the Liverpool fans will demand a Title challenge that may not be forthcoming. Should Liverpool fail to win, we will be left with a three-horse race at the top of the table. On current form, Manchester United will be left for the knackers’ yard while Arsenal and Chelsea head towards the finish line.