LONDON -- For a while it seemed as if this most novel of Premier League seasons would yield the first genuine four-team title race in years. That may still prove to be the case, but all logic suggests that four have become three within the space of an afternoon when Chelsea showcased new-found strength while Arsenal succumbed to old weaknesses.
Some might consider it a tale of two Germans. At Craven Cottage, Andre Schurrle overcame a quiet first half and the enduring sense that he is yet to win the full confidence of his manager to score three clinical goals. Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, apparently still reeling from his limp penalty miss against Bayern Munich, was not deemed suitable for a starting spot in Arsenal’s vital trip to Stoke City.
Stoke has delivered an absolute hammer blow to Arsenal's title aspirations and the Gunners can have no excuses after a performance lacking in all departments.
Mark Hughes' side looked the better team from the off and Arsene Wenger, who will no doubt question the crucial decision from referee Mike Jones to give a penalty for Laurent Koscielny's hand ball, should be extremely disappointed with his players.
For a team supposedly chasing the title, this simply wasn't close to being good enough.
It is, of course, rather more complex than that. Over the past month both teams have shown signs of fatigue, and underwhelming recent form – Chelsea boasted one win in four matches before this weekend, Arsenal two in five – hinted that once promising campaigns might be derailed at the last. Both, too, faced adversity on Saturday, though the responses could not have been more different.
Felix Magath will have been very impressed with the first 45 minutes of his Craven Cottage debut. Fulham played with discipline and conviction, stifling Chelsea with a deep defensive line and countering with pace and purpose down the flanks. All the Cottagers lacked was a viable means to test Petr Cech, but they endured the enforced withdrawal of a clearly concussed Brede Hangeland well.
But while Mourinho’s men may lack the devastating scoring power of Manchester City and Liverpool or the style of Arsenal at its best, they lead this race because they invariably find a way.
On Saturday that way was Schurrle, a man who has had more than his fill of frustration since arriving from Bayer Leverkusen last summer as he watched Willian woo his manager with skill and industry. The German looked every bit as rusty as a bit-part player should in the first half, but came alive in the second to expose the widening cracks in the Fulham defense. His finishing was ruthless, to the surprise of a few but not Mourinho. “This is what I expect from him, cold blood,” he told reporters.
The architect, once again, was Eden Hazard. Shackled by Fulham pressure and his own teammates’ lack of rhythm in the first half, he re-found his touch of genius after the break, clipping a brilliant pass over Kieron Richardson for Schurrle’s first and impudently nudging the ball into his path for the second. One rabona flick cross which Fernando Torres headed wide drew audible gasps from Craven Cottage. Despite playing almost every match the Belgian continues to dazzle and shoulder almost the entire creative burden on his own. He is, arguably, the match-winner Arsenal needs Ozil to be.
In isolation Chelsea’s victory was significant, but within the context of events at the Britannia Stadium it becomes a potentially key moment in the season.
Arsenal may yet play its way back into the title reckoning but the growing sense of frustration and dejection around the club suggests it won’t, and Liverpool and Manchester City now have the opportunity to make their task a hundred times harder.
“To win a title, you have to perform when you're expected,” Wenger admitted after the match. He remembers what it takes to win this league, but such knowledge will give Arsenal fans little comfort as they watch Mourinho stride confidently into the distance.
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