If there were any suggestions that Manchester City’s solo waltz to the Premier League title would take all the drama out of 2018, then Arsenal and Chelsea provided the perfect riposte with a wonderful match full of skill, resolve, and scintillating football — from two teams who know they cannot win the big prize.
Hector Bellerin’s stunning late goal ensured Arsenal took a deserved share of the points in a 2-2 draw and kept Chelsea in third place, 16 points behind City; but it also proved that there is no need to look away in the new year despite a lack of tension around who will eventually be crowned champions.
This fixture, of course, played such a vital part in last season’s title race when Arsenal won 3-0, a result which unexpectedly sparked Chelsea’s revival and saw them eventually lift the trophy. It won’t have the same effect this time but it will still be remembered for the way both teams played, for four excellent goals, for a string of stunning saves, and for an atmosphere which could not have been more vibrant if the trophy itself had been up for grabs.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Arsenal won this fixture so convincingly last season with a sumptuous and ruthless first-half performance which left them three goals ahead.
The feeling in north London is that should have been the moment which defined their season; but sadly things are never that simple when Arsenal are involved.
It proved instead to be the match which defined Chelsea’s campaign as Conte changed his tactics and eventually took his reinvigorated side to the title. Arsenal, meanwhile, stumbled to fifth spot and even missed out on the Champions League, 18 points behind their London rivals.
Memories of that frustration linger beneath the surface at the Emirates even though Arsenal have since beaten Chelsea in the FA Cup final and the Community Shield — and secured a respectable 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge in the league this season. This result continued that trend and although Wenger’s side remain frustrating in terms of the league table, they showed there is now little between them and the current champions, even if both sides are some way behind leaders City.
The football on show was skilful, attacking, fast-paced, and enthralling from both sides, with Eden Hazard outstanding for Chelsea and Mesut Ozil equally good for the home side.
In fact the positives for Arsenal were numerous. Ozil, despite the threat that he could leave this month, was excellent throughout; Alexis Sanchez, despite the probability that he won’t be around much longer, never stopped running; Jack Wilshere confirmed he is back to his best with an excellent opening goal; young Ainsley Maitland-Niles, still only 20 years old, was excellent at left-back — and Petr Cech, 35 years old, was probably the best of the lot with a string of excellent saves. The only problem was that despite all that it didn’t add up to three points.
The biggest criticism aimed at Arsenal is that they are inconsistent; but in some ways that label is undeserved when you look at the statistics and their ability to dig out results despite a porous defence. This was the 25th home game in a row in which Arsenal have scored, they have lost only once here all season, and have suffered only two defeats in their last 13 games in all competitions. The problem is they just aren’t good enough to go any further.
“You are a bit harsh with us because we made 75 points last season,” Wenger said when addressing the issue of inconsistency. “You need consistency to do that. And we won the FA Cup against a strong team. To go [to] the final of the FA Cup you need to be consistent.”
The fact Arsenal couldn’t take three points here means they have dropped to sixth in the table, 23 points behind the leaders — yet nobody could complain about the entertainment they provided.
Thibaut Courtois had kept four clean sheets in a row going into the game — in fact Chelsea had conceded only 14 times in 21 games — but Arsenal created a string of chances and could have had five or six if the Belgian goalkeeper had not played so well.
Chelsea could claim the same — Cech made some wonderful saves and Alvaro Morata missed on at least three occasions before Davide Zappacosta hit the bar in the final seconds.
In reality a draw did neither team any favours and left Manchester City even more confident of ending the campaign as champions. But it certainly did the Premier League some good — and gives us all hope that the season isn’t over after all.