Sometimes, Top Four matches are exciting, thrilling, scintillating. Other times, they produce drab, dull, boring performances. This, unfortunately, gave us the latter. Arsenal and Chelsea ground out a dreary draw in a Saturday lunch-time where minds looked to be elsewhere. Arsenal hit the woodwork on multiple occasions, but ultimately would be the happier with a point, with Chelsea failing to make up any ground.
Barcelona awaits on Tuesday, but it looked as though everyone’s mindset was on it already. Roberto Di Matteo made as many changes as realistically possible, with Cech, Terry and Cahill the only men still standing from Wednesday’s home tie. Bosingwa, Bertrand, Essien, Romeu, Malouda, Sturridge, Torres and Kalou all came in, with the likes of Ashley Cole, Ramires and Drogba given much needed rest-time.
The hope was on the refreshed legs to inflict Arsenal’s eleventh league defeat of the season, and the expectation was on the telepathic duo of Terry and Cahill to stop Arsenal scoring at home for the first time since the first weekend of the season.
But though the latter did their part, the former did not.
Arsenal, often likened to a poor man’s Barcelona, had possession from the start, Rosicky at the centre of it all, but Romeu, who had not played since February, was equal to any pressure.
Kalou, who had looked a new man under Di Matteo, returned to his hapless old self, failing to control the ball and make the right decisions on multiple occasions. The same could be said about Torres, who, despite a resurgence himself, looked off the mark, bar the odd shot.
But one striker who was in great form nearly opened the scoring: Robin van Persie. The Dutchman met Walcott’s free-kick, but the post got in the way of a certain goal.
Chelsea seemed to use this match to practise for Tuesday, defending solidly, and hoping for a counter-attack. But without energetic Ramires, this was always going to be difficult.
Kalou, who came in in his place, wasted a very good chance when he failed to connect properly to a Malouda pass, who was enjoying the liberation given to him in the free role, often afforded to Juan Mata.
Bertrand, who was proving to be a fine understudy for Ashley Cole, was whipping in some decent crosses, but Chelsea’s lack of effort to get into the box was more apparent than Arsenal’s defending, which did look vulnerable.
41 minutes had passed and Arsenal hit the woodwork again. Another free-kick was met by the head of Koscielny, who headed onto the bar, having evaded Jose Bosingwa.
Van Persie found space as the half drew to a close, but his half-volley was straight at Cech.
The pattern of the second half was similar to the first. Both sides looked lethargic, and rash tackles were made, Malouda booked in the 48th minute, so to Cahill not too long after.
Sturridge appeared to be reverting to his selfish self, and when Di Matteo grew increasingly agitated, appeared to tell Torres and Sturridge to swap places, with the Spaniard having a go as a right-winger. His anonymity was more noticeable, wasted on the wing.
Cole and Mata came on with fifteen minutes to go, hoping to inject new life in Chelsea. Ultimately, it was still Arsenal who were looking to win, with van Persie falling under Cahill’s presence, Mike Dean unconvinced it was a decent penalty claim.
Mikel made some telling blocks as the game drew to an end, but it will feel like two points dropped. Still, if a repeat of this scoreline came on Tuesday, no-one will be upset. But as for Chelsea and Champions League qualification next year, it looks like The Blues will have to do it the hard way.