Jose Mourinho found himself in foreign territory as he congratulated the Arsenal players as they descended from the royal box – Arsene Wenger, of course, avoided his great rival – and forced to contemplate an uncomfortable fact; Arsenal had finally managed to beat Chelsea at their own game.
Reluctantly, the Chelsea manager praised the winners’ performance that he, unfairly, characterised as a one-dimensional defensive display while delivering the barb that Wenger’s side had abandoned their philosophy in the pursuit of victory.
Mourinho’s tone was unnecessary. Yes, Arsenal demonstrated the kind of defensive resolve that has been missing from their play since the 2004 Invincibles swept their way to the title, but they had also demonstrated sufficient attacking intent, particularly in the middle of the first half, to leave Wembley as deserving winners.
So the Chelsea manager was attempting to undermine a determined, cohesive performance capped by a superb piece of individual skill. Sound familiar? It should. After all, it was the way Chelsea progressed to the Premier League title during the final months of last season.
Little wonder Mourinho looked concerned.
mourinho pirouettes to avoid shaking hands with wenger, throws losers' medal into crowd pic.twitter.com/oG5cShKaLp— Ken Early (@kenearlys) August 2, 2015
On this occasion, Chelsea largely matched Arsenal’s defensive efforts save for Cesar Azpilicueta’s lapse in concentration when he allowed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to move inside far too easily immediately before unleashing the vicious left foot shot that eventually proved the difference between the two sides.
What they lacked was a similar cutting edge with Eden Hazard, so often the difference last season, looking distinctly off the pace.
And with Diego Costa again missing with a hamstring problem, neither Loic Remy nor Radamel Falcao looked ready to step up and provide an effective alternative to the Spain forward.
Mourinho’s announcement before kick-off that Costa had failed to recover from the twinge he felt in Tuesday’s friendly with Barcelona caught nobody by surprise, despite the manager’s insistence 48 hours earlier that the player would be fit to play.
The Brazil-born striker’s troublesome muscle has been a recurring saga since he returned from an international break 11 months ago having aggravated an existing problem.
Costa’s impact last season was, of course, profound, with the forward scoring 20 goals in 26 Premier League appearances, interspersed by frequent absences. But with Remy and Didier Drogba unable to mirror the threat of their colleague when called upon to deputise, Hazard’s ability to decide games – the Belgian scored 14 league goals - was crucial.
The start of the coming season was supposed to be different. Radamel Falcao has been drafted in to maintain the roster of three strikers Mourinho believes is sufficient, a gamble given the Colombian’s minimal impact at Manchester United last season.
Yesterday, Remy worked gamely, threatening to stretch the Arsenal centre-backs and teeing up Ramires for a free header that should have seen Chelsea equalise.
His efforts were too often negated, though, by his frustrating habit of being caught offside, albeit against a defensive line that worked the trap skilfully. Four times the France forward was caught offside before being replaced at half-time.
On came Falcao, a player poised, according to his manager, to reclaim his status as a “super scorer”. That may ultimately be the case, but there were few signs that will happen any time soon. Nonetheless, Mourinho insists he is happy with his options that are likely to be further examined if Costa fails to prove his fitness ahead of Saturday’s opening day visit of Swansea City.
“Two days ago he was ready to play, he trained normal,” said the manager. “Yesterday he trained normal. The next time you ask me I prefer not to answer. If next Friday you ask me does he play against Swansea, I don’t answer, because maybe yes, maybe no. I prefer not to answer. Let’s see.
“But Falcao will have a bit more football. Falcao will play against Fiorentina (on Wednesday) from the start. Remy again too. If we don’t have Diego I’m happy with the strikers we have.” Wenger’s attacking intentions are less clear-cut. Theo Walcott was given the chance to reprise his impressive display in the FA Cup final, given the nod to fill the central striker role ahead of Olivier Giroud.
The England international was predictably lively without looking like the kind of ruthless striker that wins titles. In other words, not like a Costa. Or a Sergio Aguero.
As impressive as the Wembley display was, Arsenal’s title hopes could hinge on the manager’s ability to bring in a top class striker before the transfer window closes.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved