Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1: The annual post-mortem into the death of Arsenal’s title challenge started long before this demoralising defeat, even though some experts claimed to see life in the fading beast before kick-off. Not now.
And what next for manager Arsene Wenger after 20 glorious years, but no Premier League title since 2004?
The Frenchman is a victim of his own success in that regard, but the fall out from this match does not have to solely be about the possible demise of one of football’s most influential managers ever, for it is also a time to praise a new great coach and another superb crop of players.
Unfortunately, for Arsenal, they all belong to Chelsea.
This emphatic victory said everything one needs to know about the difference between the two clubs today.
Chelsea’s pursuit of success is nothing short of ruthless (a pre-match presentation for a long-standing member of their staff revealed she had worked alongside 27 different managers) and in Antonio Conte they have a coach who matches owner Roman Abramovich’s desires.
N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard are just two of many players in their squad capable of turning their ambition into the ultimate trophy.
Arsenal annihilated Chelsea when they hosted them in September, but Conte learned, changed tactics, personnel and the mentality of his players to take his team from eighth to champions elect at the start of February.
Wenger failed to spot the shift in power and but for Santi Cazorla’s injury would have sent out exactly the same line-up at Stamford Bridge at the weekend.
And this time it was men against boys.
Arsenal had more shots and more possession, but it has often been so for them when losing big matches.
Hazard, who scored the goal of the game and was only just outshone by the mesmeric defensive shield and distribution skills of Kante, revealed how the Italian manager gets more out of his players.
He said: “He asks a lot of me. When we don’t have the ball, he wants me to press, to defend and when we have the ball to counter-attack, to be free. Or do a bit of magic, like in this match, a job for me or for my team-mates, I try to do that.
“I think we are in better form as a team. It’s not just me. We all enjoyed the game, the players, the fans, the manager, the staff. We wanted to win this kind of game.
The Belgian said they had been given two days off before preparing for next weekend’s trip to Burnley and the task of maintaining their nine-point lead at the top, while Arsenal will be trying to cling on to a top four spot at home to Hull.
Sure, Arsenal started well at The Bridge and could easily have taken a very early lead, but once Marcos Alonso powered, some say fouled, his way to heading in Chelsea’s 13th-minute opener which left Hector Bellerin unconscious, there was little fight left.
Gabriel and the woefully ineffective Mesut Ozil had chances to equalise before half-time, but parity would have been tough on Chelsea who reasserted themselves after the break.
And Hazard’s 53rd-minute goal emphasised the gulf in class and desire as he took the ball from the halfway line and sent a series of Arsenal players bouncing off him and spinning in terror before beating Petr Cech from close range.
It was a miserable return to his former club for the ex-Chelsea keeper, who then gifted one-time Arsenal favourite Cesc Fabregas with an open goal in the closing minutes. Substitute Olivier Giroud’s injury-time header for Arsenal was not even celebrated by fans or players.
Wenger expressed his frustration at having to watch the game from the stands while he served the third match of a four-game touchline ban.
He also railed against the validity of Alonso’s goal and claimed Chelsea only hurt them on the counter-attack, but he only really snapped into life when a reporter accused him of being subdued afterwards.
“I am not subdued - I am angry and disappointed because we lost a very big game,” he said. “The result is there and it will certainly have a big say in the race for the championship.”
Many Arsenal supporters will also be wondering whether or not it has a big say in the manager’s future. There will probably be another contract waiting for him to sign come the summer, but whether he still has the backing of the vocal faithful, or the stomach for it, remains to be seen.
Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 6, David Luiz 6, Cahill 6; Moses 6 (Zouma 88, 6), Kante 9, Matic 7, Alonso 7; Pedro 7 (Willian 84, 6), Diego Costa 6, Hazard 8 (Fabregas 84, 7).
Begovic (GK), Terry, Chalobah, Batshuayi.
Cech 4; Bellerin 5 (Gabriel 13, 5), Mustafi 5, Koscielny 6, Monreal 5; Oxlade-Chamberlain 5, Coquelin 5 (Giroud 65, 6); Walcott 5 (Welbeck 70, 6), Ozil 5, Iwobi 5; Alexis 5.
Ospina (GK), Gibbs, Reine-Adelaide, Maitland-Niles.
Martin Atkinson 7
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