Arsenal fail again vs. Chelsea despite Blues' crisis as Fabregas, Costa run riot
Somewhere -- perhaps at the official Manchester United supporters' pub in Shanghai where he has spent his family vacation frantically trying to compute the correct number of stamps to put on a letter to England, Jose Mourinho was smiling. And snarling.
Smiling because his former team Chelsea continued his legacy of utter dominance over his favorite human pinata, Arsene Wenger. Snarling because the most telling blows were landed by his two Spanish Benedict Arnolds -- Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas -- who were vital in the Blues' 1-0 victory at the Emirates.
With Mourinho no longer around to goad Wenger from either the touchline or the press room and Chelsea sinking to historic depths of title defense horrors, Arsenal have never had a better chance of shattering the Blues hex -- other than an FA Community Shield win, the Gunners hadn't beaten Chelsea in the league since 2011. Not only would a victory over the Blues on Sunday have exorcised those psychological demons, it would have vaulted Arsenal back to the top of the table ahead of Leicester and Man City.
The Gunners failed miserably on both fronts, proving that some things never change even when hell -- or in my case, New York -- freezes over. The snowstorm that pummeled the East Coast over the weekend played havoc with transportation and soccer fans' early-morning drinking plans, accounting for the lowest turnout of Chelsea and Arsenal supporters at my local pub since Didier Drogba ate Philippe Senderos for breakfast.
"It's not only the blizzard," said my Chelsea friend Alex at the Football Factory, surrounded by only a couple of dozen Blues compared to the hundreds who packed the place for the corresponding match back in September. "We've lost a lot of plastic fans due to our dismal season."
By contrast, the absence of a strong Arsenal showing at the pub had nothing to do with a Gunners' season that has seen them take up long-term residence at or near the Premier League summit and everything to do with whom they were playing. Only a hopelessly deluded Gooner would leave the safety and warmth of his apartment to trek through 26-inch snowbanks believing that his Gunners would do something different in this fixture -- like score a goal.
You only have to look at the previous meeting at Stamford Bridge on Sept. 19 when Mourinho still radiated the bloated self-regard that comes with being defending champion to know what would happen on Sunday: Costa would delight in playing his role as the WWE heel before a baying away crowd, Arsenal would do something stupid, get a player sent off and fall short in their comeback.
Oh, there were a couple of subtle differences from the last encounter: Arsenal ended that match with only nine men, and we were treated to the risible sight of two allegedly grown men refusing to shake hands afterward. But at least we were consistent with one key metric: Arsenal didn't bother the scoreboard operator that day either. This time, Wenger and Chelsea's interim manager Guus Hiddink dutifully clasped digits at the final whistle but otherwise, the game had all the makings of yet another maddening Groundhog Day at the Emirates.
What is perhaps most frustrating is that unlike in Chelsea's 2-0 spanking at the Bridge last time out, Costa didn't have to chest-bump anyone to the ground or swipe a defender across the face "accidentally" to cause Arsenal to unravel. All he had to do was outpace Per Mertesacker, which is akin to being faster than a combine harvester.
Once Costa had a step on the Arsenal defender in the open field, Mertesacker had no choice but to try and impede the striker's progress, which he did by awkwardly sliding in from behind and making the slightest of contact with Costa's trailing leg. I suppose if the Spaniard was more of a gentleman he would have simply ridden the tackle and continued to bear down on Petr Cech. But Costa seemingly derives more pleasure in getting opponents sent off than in scoring goals and he wasn't about to waste an opportunity to show off his patented death roll routine. Cue referee Mark Clattenburg brandishing a red card and Arsenal were down to 10 men after only 18 minutes.
If Mertesacker's tackle was ill-judged, Wenger's response to it was even more misguided. The Frenchman would have to sacrifice a forward for another defender to fortify his undermanned rearguard but who would it be? The hard-working, but less than clinical, Joel Campbell? The under-performing speed merchant with the wooden touch, Theo Walcott? Nope -- Wenger decided that Olivier Giroud, the focal point of Arsenal's attack who had picked up a small injury in training during the week, was the man to take a seat on the bench.
It was difficult to tell who was more peeved by the choice: Giroud, whose famously handsome features morphed into a mask of unbearable emotional pain as he trudged off the field, or the Emirates crowd, which voiced their displeasure with the kind of resounding boos they had previously reserved for Cesc Fabregas.
The former Arsenal playmaker and captain whose beard has recently grown to Pirlo-esque proportions, was jeered every time he touched the ball. And he touched it a lot, running the show for Chelsea with the vision and precision he displayed during his commanding 2014 season before he fell out with Mourinho and was branded a "rat" (along with Costa) by the Blues faithful for their role in the Portuguese's sacking.
Costa and Fabregas were hardly the only Chelsea players to find joy at the Emirates. Take, for instance, the much-maligned Branislav Ivanovic, who just signed a new one-year deal with the club as a reward for his astonishing transformation from one of the best right-backs in the league to one of the worst.
In the 23rd minute, the Serb delivered a seeing-eye cross as he used to do on a regular basis during Chelsea's championship seasons. And who was the recipient of his perfectly angled pass? None other than Costa who had sneaked in front of Gabriel (yes, the same Gullible Gabe who distinguished himself at Stamford Bridge by letting Costa get him so riled up, he was sent off for flicking out his boot at the Chelsea man) to slot the ball past a helpless Cech. It was his sixth goal in six games since Hiddink replaced Mourinho, which I'm sure is only a coincidence.
Suddenly, a full-throated chant of "Deee-a-gooo, Deee-a-gooo" rang out at the Football Factory as if Costa had just scored a title-winning goal rather than one that would push the Blues into 13th place in the table if they held out for the remaining 67 minutes.
Even with 10 men, Arsenal were up for the fight and created no shortage of chances to equalize. Pity that two of the best fell to Mathieu Flamini, who made a ridiculous hash of them. Alone in front of goal, the midfielder reacted to a high ball by attempting to execute a flying kung fu kick. Note to Flamini: just because you're French doesn't mean you're Eric Cantona.
Later, Flamini tried a cute backheel from close range that petered out like Fernando Torres' Chelsea career. Would Giroud have finished one of those chances? Probably but even if he didn't, he would certainly have looked a lot more fetching than his compatriot.
Wenger played his last roll of the dice in the 57th minute when he brought on Alexis Sanchez, who hadn't played since tearing his hamstring at the end of November. The Chilean's introduction seemed to lift the entire Arsenal team -- particularly Mesut Ozil, whom Chelsea had effectively crowded out for long stretches. But with Sanchez looking as if he hadn't missed a game, let alone two months of them, Ozil finally had an outlet for his defense-shredding passes.
While the sight of a spirited late surge by the man-down Gunners made for good viewing, scoring a goal against Chelsea is clearly not something that a Wenger managed side is permitted to do although in fairness, Arsenal did muster one shot on target.
The Gunners may come to rue the six lost points against the Blues this season but for now they're still very much alive in the title race, sitting only three points behind Leicester and tied with Man City. And best of all, with 15 games left to play, none are against Chelsea.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.