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Dec 24, 2013

Jose Mourinho rains on Arsenal's parade

LONDON -- I'm beginning to think that London has it in for me.

You see, I had come 3,000 miles to endure a night of biblical conditions -- lashing rain, gusting winds, bone-chilling cold, and referee Mike Dean -- all in the name of supporting my team as it took on its odious neighbors Chelsea in a game that would determine whether I would have a top-of-the-table Christmas.

I figured that Arsenal needed all the help it could get given that in nine previous meetings, Arsene Wenger had failed to wipe the perpetual smirk off Jose Mourinho's face, the Gunners losing five and drawing four against the Portuguese man o' war. But if ever Wenger was going to break that psychological hoodoo, it was now, early in Mourinho's second spell with the club he led to glory between 2004-07.

This season Chelsea have looked surprisingly vulnerable, losing six times already including a League Cup quarterfinal to last-place Sunderland. Arsenal, on the other hand, had gotten off to a cracking start, winning 10 straight games after an opening-day defeat by Villa. Granted, the Gunners had stuttered recently, beginning with a disappointing draw with Everton, then a dispiriting loss to Napoli in the Champions League and culminating with a 6-3 demolition by Manchester City.

Still, those slip-ups notwithstanding, they were playing with great attacking brio and appeared poised to make a statement of championship intent. Normally cautiously pessimistic going into big games, I found myself wagering 20 pounds on Arsenal to win 1-0 and another 10 on Olivier Giroud to score the goal on Monday morning.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Then came the deluge, the London skies opening up and unleashing a vicious downpour that flooded the city and made traffic a hideous mess around the Emirates. Yet not only was the Chelsea bus able to make its way to the stadium, it didn't even bother to stop when it reached the gate, choosing instead to park in the penalty area of the sodden pitch.

I can only imagine how thrilled Roman Abramovich must have been to see his team line up with two banks of four that enabled Chelsea to have at least nine players behind the ball at all times. Hadn't the Russian oligarch told Mourinho that this time around it wasn't enough to just win, that he wanted to see Chelsea play expansive attacking soccer as well?

But the Special One has made a formidable career out of doing just the opposite -- sucking the entertainment out of the game and simply playing not to lose. Which he did again Monday night as Chelsea and Arsenal slogged to a dreary 0-0 draw that was enjoyable only for supporters of Liverpool, Man City and Everton, all of whom must have cackled with delight as they watched their nearest rivals in the standings sink to the occasion.

- Brewin: Snore draw - Highlights: Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea (U.S. only) - Report: Stalemate in North London - Terry: Chelsea happy with draw - McNicholas: Wenger unstuck vs. Mourinho - Lythell: Mixed emotions at Blues' draw

What was shocking, however, was not that Mourinho took so few risks but that Wenger was so timid. How else to explain that with his team unable to break down Chelsea's massed defense, he chose not to make a single substitution that might have given Arsenal some fresh legs, not to mention different attacking options? I mean, why change anyone in a team that was playing so utterly crap? Could it be that Wenger, like Mourinho, was content with a point and was saving Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Serge Gnabry for the Boxing Day showdown with West Ham?

But this was never going to be a night to showcase either team's offensive firepower. For starters, Mourinho once again left Juan Mata on the bench, thereby not only depriving Chelsea of its most creative player but also its biggest Arsenal killer -- the Spaniard had scored four goals in his last five appearances against the Gunners. Mata's crime appears to be that he embodies silk whereas Mourinho is all about steel -- hard, muscular runners who are strong in the tackle and able to bully opponents into submission. With so many tippy-tappy ball artists on Arsenal, the last thing Chelsea could afford was for the Gunners to dictate the tempo. So the Blues took them out of their rhythm and if they had to break a shin pad or two along the way, well, as Mourinho was quick to point out, "soccer is a game of contact."

Perhaps the rain blurred Dean's vision but the referee saw nothing wrong with Mikel John Obi launching himself, studs up, into Mikel Arteta's calf or Willian cleaning out Theo Walcott in the box. The latter was a rare surging run from the Arsenal winger who avoided getting drenched like the rest of the players by spending a good part of the match in the back pocket of Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta.

Walcott at least has the excuse of returning recently from a long injury layoff but Giroud is looking increasingly out of his depth at this level. After an auspicious start to the season in which he linked up sublimely with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil while banging in goals by the bushel, the Frenchman has gone scoreless in five straight games. More worryingly he seems to have lost his confidence in the penalty area, unable to finish the most clear-cut of chances. Twice against Chelsea, Giroud was presented with the kind of balls he would have routinely buried a month ago, only to slice the first one wide and hit the second straight at Petr Cech.

If the striker was exasperated, holding his head in his hands after misfiring, the mood in the crowd grew increasingly impatient. Behind me, a burly Arsenal fan bellowed the words that I hadn't heard since Ozil descended from the heavens for $60 million. "Hey, Arsene," the man shouted as another Giroud chance went begging, "spend some damn money!"

Whether Wenger will buy another striker during the January transfer window is anyone's guess. He has long said he only wants players who are better than those he currently has and besides, who is out there that would give Arsenal more of a cutting edge up front? Don't say Diego Costa, because Wenger only smashes the piggy bank once a millennium and he already went all-in on Ozil. The German maestro was once again subdued, unable to impose his passing artistry on the slick surface and having almost no time on the ball before Mikel or Ramires snapped at his ankles. In one of his more tiresome mind games before the match, Mourinho had said that Ozil, his former player at Real Madrid, is the "missing piece" of Arsenal's title puzzle." He also claimed that "it's impossible to stop him" -- of course, Chelsea doing just that made him look like even more of a tactical genius.

There is no question that Mourinho succeeded in stifling not only Ozil but Arsenal as a team -- the Gunners had only one shot on target and that didn't come until the 79th minute.

Who cares if it made for a dull, turgid game? Well, the 50,000 Arsenal fans inside the Emirates sure did as they began serenading the Blues with a rousing chorus of "Boring, boring Chelsea."

Meanwhile, the rain kept pelting down, soaking all of us hardy souls who sat in uncovered seats. (Did I mention that mine was in the front row, at midfield? Oh, what a cruel joke that was, although I did have the small satisfaction of being five feet away from John Terry as he got set for a throw-in and yelling "We'll miss you in Brazil, captain!")

As luck would have it, the gentleman next to me had come prepared to battle the wet and cold with a flask of brandy, and while I'm more of a Stella guy, desperate times call for desperate measures. As I took a hearty swig, the wind kicked up and blew a black paper bag right across Walcott's path to goal. How perfect, I thought. What better way to sum up a miserable night than with a piece of swirling rubbish?