It’s time to pay up. If you thought Chelsea’s flirtation with finesse and fanciful football was going to last, the last English Premier League game of this year would certainly have wrecked those hopes.
Not only did Chelsea relegate their owner’s Barcaesque wishes to Santa’s naughty pile, but the Blues also discovered a physcial presence that had long evaded them. Blessed in 2011, with the team boasting the biggest players, Chelsea seemed to have lost their way since as they trotted out a bevy of diminutive stars.
All of that was in short order, last evening, as the Blues jostled with, wrestled and dominated (in a manner of speaking) Arsenal at the Emirates on a rainy night. For Arsene Wenger it looked woefully familiar: his team enjoying all the possession, while their London rivals breaking on the counter and coming closer to wrecking Christmas each time. It should have been Lampard who broke the deadlock in the first half with a volley that hit the bar. Eden Hazard was a revelation, looking dangerous everytime he touched the ball. He might have made it count if it weren’t for Willian’s blow hot-blow cold performance on the right.
It’s one of the game’s most interesting moments, when two evenly matched teams serve up a draw, and yet one team walks away clearing feeling like victors. You might think that privilege went to Arsenal, joint top of the table, but it was Chelsea who had the biggest grin. Behind the 0-0 scoreline, and the 4th place in the league, Chelsea took home the biggest prizes of the night
Mike Dean’s silent stamp of approval
When Chelsea rolled out their muscular approach to the game, all eyes were on Mike Dean for the official’s take on it. One swift yellow card and Chelsea would’ve have had to take it down a notch. But Mike Dean grinned on benevolently, as Chelsea went in for the kill – arms and legs flailing. If you had any doubts on whose side the gods were on, the sight of the referee nodding in agreement as Eden Hazard blamed the rain, and the Amazonina rainforest, for a mistimed tackle should’ve turned you into a believer.
Fans of the Gunners are well within their right to draw upon conspiracy theories of lore. Mike Dean has never been good news for Arsenal. Apparently, the Red and White brigade have only won a single game under his ominous gaze. In fact, you could think of him as the opposite of Howard Webb. Manchester United has its talisman; Arsenal has its bane.
Obi Mikel might have wrecked Arteta’s ankle, had the contact been a tad more severe. Mike Dean may have given the Nigerian the benefit of the doubt since both players lunged for the ball identically. But when Willian tripped Walcott well within penalty territory, Dean would certainly have had to dig deeper for forgiveness. He did eventually turn stricter as the game wore on, punishing players – rather puzzlingly – for being at the receiving end of really good cons.
Not only did Chelsea walk away unscathed, the Blues also tested out the limits they could take their robust approach to the game to. If Dean’s reactions were any indication, the English Premier League missed the unabashed display of physicality. Expect Chelsea to persist with an approach they’re clearly comfortable with, when the season resumes next year.
The Rise of the Center-backs
For too long this season, John Terry and Gary Cahill resembled the couple who invited themselves over to your place for lunch without even a bottle of wine in tow. Against Arsenal, both stars – perhaps reminded of how even Ashley Cole was benched ignominously on the sidelines – brought their A-game.
It was vintage Terry. Slow, and not always up to the mark, but more than making up for it in spirit and heart. Marshalling Chelsea’s defenses superbly, with that reliable old war horse Ivanovic and the irrepressible Azpilicueta. As John Terry readied himself for the game, he made his intentions clear. “It’s their home game, and it’s up to them to bring it to us”, he said ominously.
With Mikel’s surprisingly robust performance and higher than expected grade in silencing Ozil, and Lampard and Ramires ruling the midfield, Terry and Cahill did what they were expected to do. Inject some steel in front of Cech. Except for a couple of threats Giroud conjured up towards the end of the game, Cech had very little to do.
The John Terry of an evening past who stumbled and looked on in horror as a certain Robin van Persie slotted home in a 3-5 mauling, was nowhere to be seen. That was finally a distant memory.
The Complete Lack Of Resolve
Mourinho may claim he laid out a team with the express ambition of eking out a draw, but the Portuguese genius made one giant miscalculation. He presumed his team was the only one seeking to avoid a loss. Wenger, who knew, a draw was sufficient to match Liverpool on points had little ambition to seek a win himself.
Wenger, whose nights are still interrupted by nightmares of his teams being mauled by Mourinho’s was content with a draw. That should’ve have been evident to the wily Chelsea manager, at the very beginning. While Mourinho, in his earlier avatar, would’ve grabbed this opportunity with both hands, that isn’t true anymore.
The older, wiser Mourinho rolled out Willian when he had the opportunity to feature Oscar or Mata. Surely, Willian contributed very little in defense that Oscar and Mata wouldn’t have been able to do themselves. With Oscar on the field, or even Mata, Chelsea would’ve been able to exert even more pressure on the break. Willian, despite a lot of promise, let the team down when Chelsea looked poised to draw first blood.
Taking off Hazard, and bringing on Schurrle smacked off unnecessary defensiveness too. Torres may not have scored in the game, but bringing Luiz on and expecting him to take a free kick even before he acclimatized to the game was unfortunate.
If these puzzling substitutions proved any point, it was that Mourinho was willing to risk Abramovich’s ire, by intentionally killing the game.
On that count, Mourinho 1. Abramovich 0.