Six matches in, the season is too young for sweeping pronouncements, the table too fluid for final words and definitive declarations.
At such an early point in the marathon English Premier League season, Chelsea's 2-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday at the Gunners' Emirates Stadium doesn't on its own affirm or deny either team's title challenge.
But watching the match, one couldn't help but imagine the two clubs as contestants in a game of contender or pretender. On that score, the results were obvious.
A week after holding champions Manchester City to a draw at the Etihad, Arsenal came home needing not so much to win as to avoid defeat in their quest to keep their early—if romantic—title hopes alive.
Chelsea, meanwhile, could have afforded a draw and possibly absorbed a loss, but winning away in an elite London derby represented an opportunity for a genuine statement of intent.
After Saturday's sort-out, statements have been made.
Chelsea—not City nor even Manchester United—are the team to beat and the team to catch early in the Premier League season.
Arsenal are still Arsenal—excitement, flair, shoddy defense, Gervinho's schizophrenia and all. And at this rate, Arsenal won't be challenging this season.
That's a shame, considering last week's draw with City. But after conceding two soft goals—two more from set pieces—and spurning several chances of their own, Arsenal have only themselves to blame.
Gooners will fuss and point to fortune, but for Chelsea, Saturday's result must feel like a case of making one's own luck.
Fernando Torres opened the scoring with 20 minutes gone, taking advantage of Arsenal's defensive frailties from set pieces at his earliest convenience. As Laurent Koscielny—kept in the squad ahead of Per Mertesacker—pointed out potential marks for his marking-averse teammates, Torres concentrated on the ball entering the box.
With the ball in the air, Koscielny turned to find Torres, who by that point had begun planning the deft, outside-of-the-foot volley that would beat Vito Mannone for the game's first goal.
Koscielny erred again a few moments later, allowing Torres free rein behind Arsenal's defense. That chance passed when Torres whiffed on his shot and crumpled in a mighty shambles inside the Arsenal box, but Koscielny's next goof wouldn't go unpunished.
After Gervinho equalized with a blistering top-corner finish—where did that come from?—Chelsea took the lead for good on Juan Mata's crafty free kick from distance on the right. But although the angle of Mata's kick presented plenty of danger, first Koscielny's touch and then Mannone's poor positioning were the real perpetrators.
With that, Arsenal had given up two more goals from set pieces—that makes three in a row, out of four total goals conceded—and given away their best chance to win.
Santi Cazorla shot over in the 89th minute with the top corner beckoning, and on another day he probably would have scored. Substitute Olivier Giroud blew an even better chance two minutes later, and with that it became clear it was not Arsenal's day.
Nor possibly their year.
Already seven points off the pace, Arsenal found more misfortune afterward. As if to add insult to unlucky, the news on Abou Diaby—who departed the match after just 17 minutes—was predictably poor.
Wenger says Abou Diaby out for "minimum three weeks" with a thigh injury. Not much luck other than bad luck for him. #bbcfootball— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) September 29, 2012
With the result, Arsenal's title hopes reverted from romantic to dubious. With Diaby's injury, Arsene Wenger's refusal to buy at the transfer deadline reverted from shrewd to short-sighted.
And with their fifth win of the season—on their most difficult assignment, by some distance—Chelsea confirmed, if they hadn't before, that the Manchester two have a challenger for the long haul.
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