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Saturday, April 21, 2012
Ennui at the Emirates

By Ravi Ubha

Robin van Persie
Robin van Persie was far from his usual self, putting four of seven shots off-target.

LONDON -- Preoccupied with Tuesday's Champions League return leg in Barcelona, Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo made eight changes from the side that stunned the Catalans 1-0 in midweek for Saturday's pivotal London derby against Arsenal. Robust captain John Terry, his central defensive partner Gary Cahill and keeper Petr Cech were the only ones to survive the squad rotation.

The move was only slightly surprising.

Even if Chelsea's likeliest opportunity to qualify for the Champions League next season is via a top-four Premier League finish, completing a two-leg victory over Barcelona -- a team considered by more than a few to be the best ever -- would do little harm to Di Matteo's chances of staying on at Stamford Bridge.

Besides, his veteran troops needed a rest after the shift they put in not only against the sublime Spaniards, but versus Tottenham at Wembley six days ago in the FA Cup semifinals. Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola won't tinker that much for Saturday's Clasico with Real Madrid.

Listed as having a knee injury, Didier Drogba, Chelsea's hero against Barcelona -- and the villain for neutrals due to his playacting -- didn't make the bench. It was a relief for Arsenal, since the Ivorian has routinely tormented the Gunners, netting 12 times in 14 games. In came the likes of the nearly forgotten Florent Malouda, Oriol Romeu and Daniel Sturridge. Fernando Torres and his $80 million price tag hardly render him forgettable, but he took up Drogba's role. And of course, El Nino's scoring slump continued. (Oh yes, we're reminded, he works hard for the team.)

What an opportunity then for Arsenal, despite missing several midfielders (including the in-form Mikel Arteta), to do the double over Chelsea and realistically lock up a top-four berth.

An opportunity that ultimately was squandered, as the teams played to a mostly drab 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium -- the first scoreless draw at Arsenal between these sides in nearly 40 years. This was no 5-3, like their encounter in October. Having one shot on target versus Barcelona, Chelsea didn't do much better, getting to two in North London.

The result was still a positive for Chelsea given the fixture congestion, although on paper it could hurt the west Londoners in the race for fourth.

Already without Arteta and Jack Wilshere, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger saw winger Theo Walcott limp off with an apparent hamstring injury. With Euro 2012 around the corner, England will be concerned, too. Finding creativity in midfield will be a problem for Wenger in Arsenal's three remaining games, beginning with next week's tricky trip to Stoke.

Of further concern for Wenger: Aaron Ramsey, Alex Song and Abou Diaby all gave away possession cheaply. For those who'll say Diaby could be excused because injuries have sidelined him for most of 2011-12, an argument could be made that he's always inconsistent. Arsenal favorite Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also struggled.

On another day, Arsenal talisman Robin van Persie could have scored a hat trick. The Dutchman's last goal from open play came more than a month ago against Newcastle, and he should have opened the scoring inside 15 minutes when he latched on to a delicious free kick from Walcott. Was van Persie thinking about the panic he caused among Arsenal fans when he visited Barcelona's team hotel this week?

The chance went against the run of play, since Chelsea controlled the early stages and had particular joy on the left. Ryan Bertrand, deputizing for Ashley Cole, impressed for Chelsea again and without question is Cole's successor for both club and country.

Van Persie didn't do himself any favors with his postmatch conduct in Monday's 2-1 loss to Wigan, and asking referee Mike Dean to book Malouda for a foul -- Dean relented -- looked silly. Van Persie remained frustrated and hacked down Michael Essien to earn himself a yellow seconds later.

The Dutchman also ballooned a free kick into the stands, blasted a volley -- the type he might have at least tested Cech on two months ago -- well away from goal, and sliced a right-footed shot wide in the 83rd minute. His desire to get the ball on his valuable left foot cost him three minutes later, resulting in a Chelsea block.

To his credit, however, van Persie didn't press for a penalty when he and Cahill collided in the second half, and neither did Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou when he was clipped -- but didn't go down -- under a challenge from Bacary Sagna.

Are you watching, Ashley Young?

Whether it's being awarded goals that weren't, benefiting from key offside rulings or seeing shots crash off the woodwork, Di Matteo has enjoyed his fair share of luck in the post-AVB era.

Apart from van Persie's effort that hit the post, back-from-suspension Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny struck the crossbar with a free header late in the first half. Almost immediately at the other end, Terry wasted his team's top chance, sending his header over the bar. Late on, it was Koscielny, Arsenal's most reliable defender this season, who guaranteed the draw by making a perfect last-gasp challenge on Sturridge.

All told, nothing ventured, nothing much gained for either side, and Di Matteo will hope for more good fortune and solid defending at the Camp Nou.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for You can follow him on Twitter here.