Having set the pace for much of the season, Arsenal will go into Christmas Day second in the Premier League table behind Liverpool after they shared a 0-0 draw with Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on Monday.
On a horribly wet and windy evening in North London, the Gunners failed to register a shot on target until the 85th minute, as Jose Mourinho’s side successfully strangled their attacking threat for much of the match.
That is not a completely fair depiction of events, however, with Olivier Giroud presented with two great chances in the final 15 minutes to win a game that only moved into top gear on a handful of fleeting occasions.
It would be remiss to suggest Chelsea did not also have their openings, though, with Frank Lampard going the closest of all as his first-half volley rattled Wojciech Szczesny’s crossbar before rebounding to safety.
“We were a bit edgy at the start of the game, but when we took control of the game in the second half we should have won it,” Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger told Sky Sports after the match. “The few opportunities we had, we couldn’t take.
“When you can’t win the game, don’t lose it,” said the manager.
The result means Wenger’s team sit behind Liverpool on goal difference, with both sides on 36 points. The Blues are just two points further back in fourth, with Manchester City (third) and Everton (fifth) ensuring the value of one win covers the top five as the season enters its busiest period.
“It was a tactical match,” Mourinho reflected to Sky Sports afterwards. “A match that Arsenal wants to win but didn't want to lose and Chelsea wants to win but doesn't want to lose.”
“It’s important not to lose this match, because it’s one thing to be two points behind the leader but another to be five points behind.”
After a nine-day break prior to this game, Wenger named a side of only a few surprises—with Tomas Rosicky named in a midfield three alongside Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey, as Thomas Vermaelen again partnered Per Mertesacker in defence.
Although Chelsea's official Twitter account described their formation as a 4-2-3-1, they also seemed to regularly shift into a 4-3-3, with Ramires dropping inside from the right-side when his side were without the ball—aiding Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel with his bite as Willian, Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres were tasked with providing attacking thrust.
Attacking thrust was something conspicuous in its absence in the first 20 minutes, however, as any tentative forays into the opposition’s defensive third were generally ended by imprecise passing or overzealous challenges on defenders.
Indeed, it took until the 24th minute for the first chance of note; Gary Cahill doing well to turn Bacary Sagna’s cross away from danger with Olivier Giroud lingering behind him.
Chelsea had looked marginally more threatening in the early stages, however, and they soon began to find their feet in attack.
Ramires went close with a glancing header before Lampard sparked the game into life by rattling the crossbar; the England midfielder’s first-time volley rebounding away, a near-miss after Hazard picked him out with a perfect chipped pass.
Both teams seemed to pick up the tempo as a result of that close attempt, with referee Mike Dean soon forced into two controversial decisions.
The visitors benefited from both calls, as Dean opted not to penalise Mikel for a late challenge on Arteta (who took a nasty blow to his shin for his troubles) moments before Theo Walcott’s claims for a penalty after contact with Willian were also waved away.
"100 per cent penalty," Wenger added. "In my mind, there is no doubt."
Without a goal to enliven matters, both incidents were destined to be debated at length at half-time, although Willian had the chance to make his presence known for the right reasons after Hazard had capitalised on Ramsey’s mistake to start a quick counter-attack.
Like the first half, the second period started slowly—with each defence wresting back a measure of control after 15 minutes to reorganise themselves.
It took 15 minutes for the crowd to raise their voices after another poor challenge on Arteta earned Ramires the game’s first yellow card, with Walcott following him minutes later for what appeared to be a retaliatory swipe at Cesar Azpilicueta.
Things got even more heated soon after, as Mesut Ozil went forehead-to-forehead with Branislav Ivanovic after the Serbian had challenged him over by the corner flag.
The two players had to be separated by team-mates but Dean opted not to take any action, perhaps believing that to be the best way to prevent an increasingly simmering London derby from boiling over completely.
With barely 10 minutes remaining, Arsenal were still yet to have a shot on target, but their best chance was about to be created—and it fell to exactly the man they would have wanted.
Stealing possession in midfield, Ramsey clipped the ball into Giroud on the left of the penalty box. With Cech rushing out, the Frenchman nevertheless had time to get a first-time shot off, but he skewed it slightly as the ball sailed wide of the near post.
Five minutes later, however, Giroud was denied from another great opening. The No. 9 was where he should be to get on the end of Kieran Gibbs’ cutback, but a combination of Cech’s dive and John Terry’s challenge somehow saw the ball deflected over the crossbar.
If anyone needed an indication of Mourinho’s ambitions for this match, it came with three minutes remaining, as Torres was withdrawn in his final substitution for David Luiz. An away draw against a title rival clearly suited the Portuguese just fine.
There were still three minutes of injury time to be played, however, and one final moment of tension as Azpilicueta cleared Sagna’s deflected header away at the far post.
With that difficulty negotiated, however, Chelsea got the ball forward and kept it there for the remainder of the contest—ensuring a result perhaps neither side will be unduly disappointed with. Following the match, Chelsea captain Terry told Sky Sports:
We came here with the aim not to lose the game, and in the last ten minutes we tightened up and did that. It’s their home game and it’s down to them to bring it to us. [Then] in the final five minutes you have to realise that, okay, a point isn’t a bad result.
Defensive partner Cahill added: “We would have loved to win it, but if we can’t win it we don’t want to lose it. A point keeps us there.”
The closest, most contested title race in recent memory just got a little bit closer, however.
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Arsenal visit West Ham on Boxing Day, with another away trip—this time to Newcastle United—looming three days later.
Chelsea, in contrast, have two home games to now focus on—with Swansea City and fellow title challengers Liverpool visiting Stamford Bridge on the 26th and 29th respectively.
(All quotes obtained from Sky Sports' live post-match broadcast)