By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal reached the crucial milestone of Christmas level on points with leaders Liverpool after a goalless draw against Chelsea at Emirates Stadium on Monday night.
Arsène Wenger’s side needed a positive response after their 6-3 defeat at Manchester City last time out and they will be satisfied enough with a thoroughly-deserved point.
The conditions - driving rain and a swirling wind - dominated the opening half-hour and Chelsea edged the rest of the first half. Frank Lampard even rattled the crossbar from the edge of the area.
However Arsenal were the better side after the interval and might have stolen victory at the death when Olivier Giroud’s shot was blocked by the body of Petr Cech.
Although they missed out on a victory that would have returned them to the top, Wenger must be pleased to have held one of this season’s genuine title contenders.
As a result of this point, Arsenal remain firmly in the race.
SETTING THE SCENE
North London had been wet and windswept all day in the build-up to this massive, massive game. The rain eased off slightly as kick-off approached as if it was aware of the magnitude of the last Premier League game before Christmas.
So much was riding on this encounter. The weekend’s results had seen Arsenal drop to third place. After this 90 minutes, they could be as high as first or as low as fourth.
Wenger made four changes from the side beaten at Manchester City “an eternity ago”, according to the manager.
Thomas Vermaelen, Kieran Gibbs, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky replaced Laurent Koscielny (knee), Nacho Monreal, Mathieu Flamini and Jack Wilshere (suspended) respectively.
Meanwhile Lukas Podolski was in the Arsenal first-team squad for the first time since August 27.
The conditions seemed to hamper both sides early on as nothing of note occurred in the opening 20 minutes.
Even after that, this sodden affair was the slowest of smoulders.
Kieran Gibbs escaped down the left but John Terry headed away an interrogating cross. Shortly afterwards Aaron Ramsey released Bacary Sagna down the other flank but Cesar Azpilicueta cleared.
On 27 minutes, Ramires slid a header over from Willian’s cross. It was a tame effort but, statistically at least, a chance.
Five minutes later, Chelsea did create a bonafide opportunity - and it sent the Arsenal bar rattling.
Lampard exchanged passes with Eden Hazard and smashed a volley against the underside of the bar.
The opportunity saw Arsenal have a mini-wobble. Wojciech Szczesny saved from Fernando Torres then Per Mertesacker slid in well to stop the Spaniard sending over a cross.
As the rain worsened before half-time, Arsenal claimed a penalty when Willian appeared to clip Walcott.
A minute before the whistle, Ramsey’s pass was intercepted by Torres, who led a Chelsea charge. However Willian shot tamely at Szczesny.
The game opened up after the restart. It seemed both sides had decided they would try to win this game and, crucially, they had fully adapted to the conditions.
But while the tempo and the tenacity had increased by 20 per cent, the inaccuracy of the final ball remained the same.
Rosicky had an early shot blocked and, midway through the half, Lampard’s drive was snaffled the midriff of Szczesny.
This had been a strange game in many ways. High on pace and urgency, low on chances and poise.
Jose Mourinho made changes, Wenger kept his substitutes warming up throughout.
Fourteen minutes from time, Arsenal thought they had found a breakthrough. Rosicky fed Ramsey who clipped an inviting ball into the path of Giroud in the left-hand channel. The Frenchman hit it first time but sliced his effort into the side-netting.
Five minutes from time, the Frenchman saw an even better chance blocked by Cech after Gibbs, one of Arsenal’s best outlets on the night, cross low from the left.
In injury time, Azpilicueta hacked Vermaelen’s header off the line after the Belgian had met Mesut Ozil’s corner.
A fair draw but a largely forgettable game.
Referee: Mike Dean
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