Arsene Wenger has the destiny of the Premier League in his control but the Arsenal manager expects a four-way battle before he gets his hands on the title.
Wenger’s side remain one point clear of Manchester United at the top of the table after William Gallas clinched a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium.
The Gunners showed they could withstand the pressure of playing catch-up after briefly losing top spot to United, who won 1-0 at Liverpool earlier on Sunday.
They are now six points ahead of Chelsea and 10 clear of Liverpool and it would be easy to interpret those results as proof that Arsenal and United will stay the course better than their rivals.
But Wenger refused to write off Chelsea and admitted he is sure all four of England’s big guns will slug it out until the end.
”We are confident. The belief is there but I prefer that it remains a four horse race because it is more interesting,” Wenger said.
”It makes a day like this great for the Premier League. As long as there are four teams in it the interest is even bigger.
”The other two are still involved. Liverpool had the biggest disappointment because they dropped points at home but they are not out of it. Neither are Chelsea because they showed here that they are a good team.”
This was a statement game for Arsenal. Their purist principles have never been in doubt but for too long they have been vulnerable against teams who try to rough them up.
Chelsea set out to do just that but Wenger’s youngsters proved they have the spirit and determination to go toe to toe with anyone.
It made for a brutal clash. No quarter was asked or given and at times the game resembled a bar-room brawl.
Referee Alan Wiley booked nine players, four from Arsenal and five from Chelsea, but right until the end the bone-crunching tackles threatened to boil over into anarchy.
Wenger made no apologies for the physical nature of the contest.
”The spirit in the side in absolutely amazing. Where we have improved is in the fight,” he said. ”We were not dominated in the duels and the one-on-ones. Overall we dominated that area and that is not normally the case.”
The spiteful atmosphere that surrounded Ashley Cole’s first return to Arsenal following the Chelsea left-back’s controversial transfer last year turned out to be the perfect backdrop to the match.
Cole was jeered throughout and his frustration boiled over when he made an obscene gesture at the Arsenal fans after the final whistle.
Chelsea manager Avram Grant has more pressing concerns than Cole’s temper. John Terry will have scans on an ankle injury that forced him to come off before half-time.
Terry, who had been involved in a flare-up with Cesc Fabregas moments earlier, was caught by Emmanuel Eboue’s late tackle.
Grant believes Terry has ligament damage rather than a break and will be praying the England defender is back soon.
With Didier Drogba absent and Andriy Shevchenko short of confidence, Chelsea lacked a cutting edge.
They fell behind in first half injury time when Petr Cech made a rare, costly error. The keeper misjudged Fabregas’s corner and Gallas, a former Chelsea player, was on hand to head into the empty net.
Shevchenko’s one threating moment came late on but Manuel Almunia, who had a fine game, brilliantly tipped his free-kick over.
Grant, whose side lost for the first time in 17 matches, is convinced Chelsea did enough to show they can still feature in the title battle.
”It is disappointing but if we continue like this it will be ok for us. It is not the end of the world,” he said. ”Six points at this time of the season is nothing. It will not be easy, but it is possible.
”Arsenal had all their players and we did not but there was no difference between us and them.” – Sapa-AFP