Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: A different kind of frustration

I’m used to finishing matches between Arsenal and Chelsea with a feeling of immense frustration gnawing at me. It generally floods in to replace the dread that’s accompanied the build-up to such games.

However, this time round it’s been different. Heading in to the match I was actually excited. We had such a weight of momentum behind us that I was convinced we stood a really good chance of ending Arsene Wenger’s ugly record against Jose Mourinho. If there was ever to be a time to end the hoodoo, this felt like it — 13th time lucky.

It wasn’t to be. I do feel frustration now, but it’s not the hair-pulling, hand-wringing hysteria that previously accompanied our capitulations in these top-of-the-table clashes. I think Arsenal did most things right. Game-management has been Arsenal’s undoing on so many occasions, but they were largely able to negotiate this fixture with intelligence and maturity.

Nevertheless, they couldn’t shake the Mourinho-faced monkey from their back. We did most things right, but he clung on to preserve his record. This was an Arsenal team ready to win, but they faced a Chelsea team who weren’t ready to lose. The scoreline may have been a draw, but only one manager left with the result they came for.

At this point in the season, Mourinho has given up any pretence of trying to appease Abramovich with attractive attacking football. He abided by that decree in the first half of the season, but on this home straight he’s reverted to type with some execrably pragmatic displays. It’s regression to the meanest of footballing philosophies, but it works.

For Arsenal, there’s no shame in drawing with the champions elect. It’s actually a very decent result, especially in the light of Manchester United’s defeat at Everton — but it also feels like an opportunity missed. Chelsea might be weaker in future, but with eight consecutive wins behind us I’m not sure we’ll ever be stronger.

The fact we still couldn’t break them down suggests that when we do eventually beat them, it will require the rarest of defensive lapses. As John Terry marshalled Olivier Giroud into subordination, his hilarious slip at Stamford Bridge felt like an awfully long time ago.

This game was understandably talked about as an opportunity to lay down a marker for next season, but the reality is that Arsenal do not need to beat Chelsea to win a Premier League title. Far more important is to avoid the sort of disastrous start to the campaign which handed Mourinho his insurmountable lead.

Arsenal didn’t get the landmark win they craved but they gave a good account of themselves nonetheless.

Traditionally, my exasperation has stemmed from the fact Arsenal have humiliated themselves. This time, it’s due to the fact that we weren’t able to humiliate Mourinho. I’m choosing to look upon that as progress.

Reading 1-2 Arsenal (AET): No semi-final flourish but Gunners get there

To be perfectly honest, I’d rather look forward to an FA Cup Final than back at a less than inspiring game.

Just like last year, we made hard work of Championship opposition at the semi-final stage. From around the hour-mark, this game really could have gone either way. There was something miraculous about how we navigated the two ties at Wembley last season, and there were times during this match where I wondered if our luck had finally run out.

In my opinion, we underperformed just as badly as Liverpool did in the other semi. Fortunately, our opposition did not have the quality to punish our sloppiness. Pavel Pogrebnyak running at you does not pose quite the same threat as Christian Benteke.

Our disappointing display is in part explained by Arsene Wenger’s decision to rotate the team. That’s not a criticism — I felt the introduction of Wojciech Szczesny, Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs and Danny Welbeck made sense. Wenger kept the midfield intact and thus ought to have preserved the core of the side.

However, that theory overlooks quite how integral Olivier Giroud has become to our style of play. Without him as a focal point, our attack looked disjointed. Danny Welbeck took some stick for his performance, but it seemed to me he suffered from playing in a team that had forgotten how to use him. We’re utterly reliant on Giroud at present, and were unable to adapt to a different style of striker.

With the fall-backs faltering, the changes made for a substandard performance. One only hopes there’s not more to it: this extraordinary winning run has to end at some stage. After another drab win at Burnley, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that our form peaked against Liverpool and is now on the wane.

That we made it to the final is largely down to Alexis Sanchez. This was reminiscent of our performances in the first half of the campaign, when we were regularly bailed out by the Chilean’s individual brilliance. Although he was quiet for long periods against Reading, he was still able to provide the two telling moments. When you pay £35 million for a marquee forward, it’s in the hope they’ll deliver when the crunch comes. Sanchez did not disappoint. The Americans would doubtless call him a ‘clutch’ player. I’ll settle for calling him bloody brilliant.

And so it’s Villa in the final. I’m delighted with that: Steven Gerrard’s farewell party would have cast a sentimental shadow over proceedings had Liverpool progressed.

However, Villa also worry me, for one simple reason: I can’t bear the thought of making Tim Sherwood happy. I’ve gone on record in the past stating my belief that Sherwood has the glass-eyed star of a man with more gilets than brain cells. To lose to him would be the ultimate humiliation. Spare me that, Arsenal. Please.

Ps. Listen to this week’s Arsecast Extra for discussions on Szczesny, Debuchy and the game.