Chelsea 2 (Drogba 8, 23) Arsenal 0
A little over twenty four hours on, and this is no less painful than the second Mike Dean put the whistle to his lips, confirming that once again, Didier Drogba had put us back in our place, trailing both Chelsea and United by a distance that, while not insurmountable, would take a monumental recovery to come back from.
That our performance was much improved from the United game was good, but ultimately irrelevant, because no matter how well we played in the middle third, we were unable to carve out more than a couple of chances. You could say the same of Chelsea, but after gifting them two early goals they had no need for expansive attacking football. They were confident of containing us, and they were proven correct.
The match was ultimately won by the more clinical team, and lost by the one whose lapses opened the door. The first goal came from an early Chelsea corner – Terry won the header, and Drogba tapped in at the far post. That Terry won the ball in the air was not necessarily a surprise, but what was so infuriating was seeing Chelsea’s main goal threat unguarded, two yards out. Song had been drawn to the ball and lost his man, while Clichy, supposedly covering the post, went wandering into no man’s land. It was sloppy all round.
You don’t get away with giving Chelsea many gifts, but we handed them another on a plate soon after. As ever, we were caught on the counter – Lampard running half the length of the pitch unchallenged before feeding Drogba, who waltzed past non-challenges from Clichy and Vermaelen to lash the ball in. Almunia has received criticism for not saving a shot very close to his left hand, but it was struck with such venom that he had no time to react. The failures were earlier in the move.
In between, Arshavin had forced a terrific save from Cech after being played through by an inch perfect chipped pass from Cesc – it deserved a goal. But as soon as the second went in, the pattern of the game was established. Chelsea were happy to contain, content for us to have the bulk of the ball in unthreatening areas, safe in the knowledge that their defence was skilled enough to cope.
And cope they did – aside from a chance for Nasri, caught in two minds whether to shoot or feed Walcott, we threatened little. A late Cesc free kick would have been no more than a consolation, while a devilish set piece from Drogba nearly gave him a deserved hattrick, the ball crashing off the bar.
The statistics appear to show that we dominated, but they don’t tell the full story. It is clear that our performance was leagues above last weekend, but we still lacked the cutting edge that allows these games to be won. At the other end, we will always concede goals. It is a combination that works against the bulk of the Premiership, but comes unstuck against the very best defences.
The most concerning thing for me was the team availability. All season we’ve bemoaned injuries, and legitimately so, but you could argue that ten of yesterday’s starting eleven would play with everyone available. The back five is certainly the strongest we have, while Song-Cesc-Diaby is probably our best midfield trio. Arshavin and Nasri would start up front under normal circumstances, so the only change would be Van Persie in for Walcott. It is more than a little worrying that we look so lightweight when almost back to full strength.
Many are now debating whether we are still in the title hunt. The answer is yes, we are, but it would take something truly special from here. All we can do is get back to winning ways, continue to bully the lesser teams as we have done, and hope for the best. It may be enough. I suspect it won’t, but I am unwilling to give up hope just yet – you never know.
The run-in starts here. A win over Liverpool would all but confirm us in the top three, silencing those who think we may slip further down the league, and then we need to put together a run. If it brings us back into contention, great. If it doesn’t, at least we’ve avoided a Champions League qualifier. There is too much too play for to give up now.