By Richard Clarke
Arsenal inched closer to Champions League qualification after they drew 0-0 with Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
This game had promised much but, in truth, never really caught light. A much-changed Chelsea edged the first half but it was Arsenal that hit the woodwork through Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny.
The home side grew in confidence as the game went on but could not sustain pressure on the visitors’ goal.
They had strong claims for a penalty late on when Van Persie seemed to be pushed over by Gary Cahill. However, referee Mike Dean waved play on.
At the final whistle, the draw left Arsenal six points ahead of Spurs and Newcastle, in fourth and fifth places, having played two games more.
It is building up to be a tense finale in the race for the top four. Wenger’s men, however, have the points and therefore the advantage.
The manager made four changes from the side beaten 2-1 by Wigan on Monday – two tactical alterations in defence and two enforced ones in midfield.
If Wenger was tweaking his side, Roberto Di Matteo gave his major surgery. Chelsea were amid a run of four major games in three different competitions over nine days.
That explained his eight changes from the midweek win over Barcelona. Only Petr Cech, Cahill and John Terry were retained, however, most of the big guns were on the bench.
Still, there was no sign of fatigue in Chelsea early on. In fact they were probably the brighter outfit in the opening 10 minutes but had nothing to show for it.
The first chance fell to Arsenal – and it nearly saw them take the lead. In the 13th minute, Oxlade-Chamberlain was clipped outside the area and Walcott floated the subsequent free-kick to the far post. Van Persie darted in and flicked the ball against the base of the post.
It was a huge chance and against the run of play. Chelsea were the better side and Salomon Kalou was their best outlet. He set up Fernando Torres, whose shot was blocked, and midway through the half then nearly profited when Wojciech Szczesny mistimed his rush out of the area.
Up to this point, Arsenal had not been fluid and were struggling to retain pressure going forward. Chelsea were hardly ripping through the home side but they had a significant edge territorially.
However, three minutes from half time, Arsenal would again create a chance that would rattle the post. Once more, the genesis of the chance came when Oxlade-Chamberlain was fouled. Van Persie floated in the free-kick and Koscielny emerged unmarked to guide a header against the bar.
Suddenly, the game found a spark. Cahill headed over from a corner but Arsenal broke forward and Alex Song found Van Persie in space on the left.
The captain’s fierce shot was beaten away by Cech at the near post.
It was perhaps Arsenal’s brightest spell of the first half. But they knew they had to do better in the second period.
The home side started with intent but the game soon returned to the stodgy morass seen throughout the opening period.
Defeat would be a huge blow to both sides and they seemed cautious of making the first mistake.
Stalemate was the result.
On the hour, Wenger brought on Gervinho for Theo Walcott, who had already needed treatment. When the England international went down again, the switch was made. Walcott went off hobbling.
The Arsenal manager followed that almost immediately by taking off Tomas Rosicky for Abou Diaby. It was the French midfielder’s fourth appearance of the season – all as a substitute.
Arsenal were looking a little more lively now. Van Persie fired over twice – from a long-range free-kick and a high, hanging cross by Ramsey.
Wenger’s final change saw Santos replace Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left.
Gervinho and Van Persie set up Diaby, whose goalbound effort was blocked. Arsenal also had a decent claim for a penalty when Cahill appeared to bundled over the Dutchman in the six-yard box.
The home side were ending the game on top. Van Persie slashed a shot wide and then saw Cech block his effort at the near post.
A game that had been so cagey for so long opened up at the end but neither side could break the deadlock.
Arsenal can take solace from the fact that they have taken four points from Manchester City and Chelsea at home – the two biggest names on their run-in agenda.
However, Wenger’s men still have work to do to secure their place in next season’s Champions League.
- Rosicky 65 Yellow Card
- Walcott 60
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 70
- van Persie (C) Yellow Card
- Andre Santos 70
- Diaby 65 Yellow Card
- Gervinho 60
- Bosingwa Yellow Card
- Cahill Yellow Card
- Terry (C)
- Bertrand 77
- Romeu 66
- Malouda Yellow Card
- Kalou 74
- Cole 77 Yellow Card
- John Obi Mikel 66
- Mata 74