10 December 2006

What have we learned today?

With Arsenal and Chelsea battling to a stalemate at the Bridge, there are a few conclusions that can be drawn about the rest of season.

• The best defense against Chelsea is a good offense. This game may be Exhibit A, but Boro’s home win, and both of Liverpool’s games versus the Blues this season are also excellent examples. When you let Chelsea set the pace and the tone, put as many men behind the ball as possible, and invite them on, as many smaller clubs do, they will take advantage. Unlike Liverpool in that situation, with Chelsea, it’s only a matter of time before they break you down.

• The title is United’s to lose. An eight-point advantage (with Chelsea still possessing a game in hand) is nowhere near insurmountable, but with the way United has played for 4 months, it is quite a gap. No offense to the chasing pack (which at this point is pretty much just Chelsea), but injuries and their own form are Manchester’s two main opponents.

• Chelsea’s starting line-up is not their best. The addition of Shevchenko and Ballack has prompted Chelsea to line-up with no natural width. With Sheva and Drobga up top, and Lampard, Ballack, Essien, and Makalele in midfield, there’s no room for Joe Cole, Robben, or Wright-Phillips (who honestly was poor today). Once Sheva and Geremi came off, with Essien moving to RB and Chelsea shifting into a more familiar 4-3-3 formation, they were miles more dangerous. It not only got them the equalizer, but with some of the chances in the last 15 minutes, they could and should have won.

• Petr Cech’s injury may have cost Chelsea the full 3 points. I can’t speak for Cudicini, who let in a similar dipping shot to Riise in the Community Shield, but Cech, who has possibly the strongest set of hands in goalkeeping, could have pushed Flamini’s shot around the post when all Hilario could do was direct it into the net.

• Arsenal will be title contenders sooner rather than later. I don’t know what Thierry Henry is on about. There are a ton of young players, and couple who are out of their depth (I’m looking at you, Senderos), but the potential is off the charts. Eboue, Flamini, Fabregas, Hleb, and to a lesser extent Djourou, Clichy, and van Persie showed what they can do today. If they continue their progress over the second half of the campaign, they'll surely be title contenders come 07-08.

• And while it’s incidental to the performance of the two teams or to the rest of the season, I want to make one other point. There could easily have been two red cards today but for sensible refereeing. If Alan Wiley went straight by the letter of the law, both Drogba and Jens Lehmann would have been sent off for raising their arms. And the rest of the game, which was one of the most entertaining of the season, would have been dramatically changed. But Wiley acted sanely, consulted his linesman, spoke to both players, cooled the incident off, and gave just yellows. Well played.

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