LONDON – After Chelsea 's defeat to Sunderland in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday, Jose Mourinho hinted that he might return to a more defensive approach. Like the Grinch, Mourinho did, robbing the Emirates of anything resembling joy as his side played out a dour, occasionally spiteful 0-0 draw. That means it is Liverpool who top the table at Christmas, with another four sides, Arsenal and Chelsea among them, within two points.
Arsene Wenger had never beaten Mourinho in nine previous attempts and he was thwarted again, haunted by the ghost of Chelsea past as Mourinho abandoned the 4-2-3-1 he inherited from Rafa Benitez to return to the 4-3-3 that won him the title in his first season at the club, 2004-05. Stability returned and, while Chelsea lacked much in the way of creativity, it might have stolen the win had Frank Lampard's 32nd-minute volley from Eden Hazard's chip not hit the bar and bounced down a couple of yards in front of the line.
Arsenal struggled to create chances, although Olivier Giroud, now suffering the dip in form that was widely feared and that exposes the lack of striking cover, missed two decent chances late on. Also, the Gunners probably should have had a penalty when Willian seemed to trip Theo Walcott late in the first half. Arsenal could also feel slightly hard done by that Mikel got away with a lunge on Mikel Arteta that, while probably not malicious, was certainly reckless and late. Ramires and Tomas Rosicky were both cautioned for wild challenges in a second half that simmered on the brink of nastiness without ever quite boiling over.
Wet conditions didn't help spice up a goal-less match. (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty)
Wenger was adamant it was a penalty. "The referee had not a great game at all," he said, but he was relatively restrained, preferring to focus on the progress his side has made. "If you had said after the first game of the season when we lost to Aston Villa that we would be top of the table people would have said you were absolutely mad." For all that Arsenal has outperformed expectations then, the issue of squad size may yet be an issue.
Jose Mourinho was dismissive of Arsenal's complaints. "They like to cry," he said, taking another swipe at Spanish football as well as Arsenal. "That's tradition. I prefer to say that English people - Frank Lampard for example - would never provoke a situation like that [presumably an attack on Arteta for staying down]. Players from other countries, especially some countries, have that in their blood. Even if there is contact, even if it's aggressive, you say come on, let's go, that's English football. English football, winter, water on the pitch, sliding tackles come at fantastic speed: Be proud. Football is for men - or women with fantastic attitudes."
Mourinho, having seemed tense after Chelsea's Capital One Cup exit, was in almost ostentatiously relaxed mood, joking with the fourth official about goal-line technology after Lampard's shot had bounced down off the bar, helping Bacary Sagna to his feet with exaggerated care and then mimicking a weak attempt at a header from Eden Hazard. Perhaps he simply feels more at home with the old style.
"Boring, boring Chelsea!" Arsenal fans chanted at the end; that was exactly what Mourinho wanted. It might even help him persuade the club's owner Roman Abramovich to invest in a new forward in January. "If we scored goals in a direct relation to what we produce we would be in a fantastic situation," he said. "It's not just a problem of the strikers not scoring goals - it's also other people not turning half-chances into goals." If the goals come, then Mourinho could easily add a third league title.
What the draw means is that the league remains wide open. Manchester City , a point off the top, is probably the favorite, and its attacking prowess - it averages three goals a game which, if maintained for the whole season, would take it to 114, smashing the record of 103 set by Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea - is formidable. It remains shaky away from home, though, and while it has been improving as the relationship between Yaya Toure and Fernandinho has developed, it remains defensively vulnerable away from the Etihad.
Liverpool tops the table at Christmas for the first time since 2008, and seems in a similar position to Arsenal: The first-team is excellent, but there is perhaps a lack of depth in the squad. That problem will probably also undermine Everton's chances. Tottenham , for all its problems, is only six points back - as is Newcastle - while even Manchester United are not completely out of the reckoning, although it would need a lot of others to slip up if it is to overhaul an eight-point gap.
It's possible that City or Chelsea could suddenly snap into form and zoom away from the rest, but almost at the halfway point of the season, this is the most open and enthralling Premier League race in years.