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Arsenal back in the picture

by Thomas Jensen on Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Thierry Henry's last-gasp goal against Manchester United may have let Chelsea off the hook, but this weekend was another blow to the Blues' hopes of defending their Premiership crown.

 Sure, the gap to the top remains at six points despite Saturday's loss at Liverpool, but the performances of the top two clubs this weekend showed the difference is much greater right now. Bet on Arsenal at WagerWeb.com and recive a 30% bonus!

United were seven minutes away from victory at Arsenal before they were hit by two quick goals – first Robin van Persie's 83rd minute equaliser and then Henry's injury-time winner. But Sir Alex Ferguson's men played impressive football for most of the game, bossing midfield and creating several chances.

There was enough shown by United to suggest this result was nothing more than a blip.

"I have no worries about the form of the team," Ferguson said. "It is still good."

"We have to analyse how we lost the goals. That's the best thing. I cannot be disappointed with the overall game itself.

"The players played well and work hard. There is not a lot I can fault them for."

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In contrast, Chelsea were never in the game at Anfield, and their display laid bare the problems — both mental and physical — which have hit Stamford Bridge in recent weeks.

Forced to pair right-back Paulo Ferreira and midfielder Michael Essien in central defence as the growing injury-list claimed the last of their centre-backs, Chelsea left the door wide open at the back and trailed after just three minutes to Dirk Kuyt's goal.

When Jermaine Pennant slammed in a stunning half-volley 14 minutes later, it seemed there was a very real possibility of a rout.

Chelsea could not deal with the height of Crouch at the back, but more worrying than that, their attacking players simply did not look interested.

Didier Drogba was silenced by Jamie Carragher, Arjen Robben begged off injured early on, while Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard were anonymous in midfield. Chelsea's performance was encapsulated in one free-kick wasted when Ballack played it to Drogba — stood two yards away — as the striker was turned away, screaming for others to get in position.

It was embarrassing, but Manager Jose Mourinho seemed not to notice. Rather than screaming at his players to show a little more effort, the Portuguese coach dug his hands a little deeper into his coat pockets, shrugged his shoulders, and re-took his seat.

Then, after the game, he once again took to blaming the current results on a boardroom he claims has failed to back him in the transfer market during the current window.

"In my view we need two players. But I gave my opinion to the club," he said, even going on to claim that his team showed "pride, professionalism and effort when we were 2-0 down."

Perhaps he was watching a different game

But while defeats for both United and Chelsea have left the gap at the top unchanged, they have had the effect of bringing Liverpool and Arsenal back into the picture.

For either to genuinely challenge for the title seems highly improbable — they remain 11 and 12 points behind United, respectively — but the possibility of either one of them catching the drifting Chelsea for second place now seems very real.

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The victories this weekend have given both clubs renewed optimism going into the final 14 games of the season.

"I think there is still hope," said Henry. "Obviously it will take a massive task for us to win it. But it is mathematically doable. It will take something special to catch Manchester United."

"It was a good weekend for Liverpool and for us. But if you don't carry on then it won't mean anything.

"You need to [go on] and make sure you can remember this game and say it was the turning point."

Liverpool came away from their victory over Chelsea upset that the focus was on the champions' problems rather than their own impressive display

"When we were losing some games, without Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, people didn't say we had players missing," Manager Rafael Benitez said.

"The first season I was here we had players missing, but we said, 'No excuses, let's keep going'.

"We deserve some credit. Don't forget we had Xabi off the field for 10 minutes due to injury during Saturday's win. We must give credit to our players and not talk about the other team."

Like Henry, Reds defender Carragher is eager to keep the momentum from Saturday's win going.

"We've got to just focus on winning as many games as we can and keep the pressure on the top two.

"The target now is to catch Chelsea. That's what Saturday's result has done for us. We've given ourselves a chance of doing that, and if we can push ourselves into second, then we can have a look where we are."

After the displays they put in this weekend, Liverpool and Arsenal will be ruing more than ever the early-season wastefulness that allowed United and Chelsea to pull away.

Next season, there's a real possibility of a four-way title challenge. This season, Chelsea are in danger of leaving only one serious runner in the race.

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