LONDON: Chelsea have edged ahead of Arsenal and Tottenham in the race for the third Champions League group place behind incoming champions Manchester United and outgoing champions Manchester City.
The north London rivals will probably have to scrap it out for fourth place after Arsenal were held 1-1 at home by Manchester United in a duel prefaced by controversy over whether they would form the traditional guard of honour for the new champions before kickoff.
This was not about the rivalry between the clubs, only the fact that Robin Van Persie had left Arsenal last summer to win the title with United.
But Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger always insisted he wanted “the traditions of English football to be respected.” Generously he added: “We respect Robin Van Persie like every other player who has left and comes back. I want the player to be respected.”
Thus the split of cheers and jeers among the crowd was half-and-half as Arsenal lined up to applaud out a United team in which Van Persie was the last in line. Ironically, it was the Dutchman who gave away possession in midfield so that Arsenal could race forward for Tomas Rosicky to split United’s defence so Theo Walcott could open the scoring.
United struggled to find any sort of form. Their frustration boiled over in some ragged tackling. They collected four yellow cards in the first halfhour including one for Van Persie after he clattered into Per Mertesacker.
Van Persie helped up his former team-mate and apologised and then took revenge on the Arsenal fans who howled for a red card by scoring United’s barely-deserved equaliser.
He converted a 44th-minute penalty after having been brought down by Bacary Sagna. Van Persie thus became the fourth player to score more than 25 goals in successive Premier League seasons after Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry and Robbie Fowler.
The second half was not much of an improvement. Wenger rang the changes late in the game to try to force victory. One such change, all in vain, was bringing on Gervinho for Lukas Podolski who had rarely justified his return to the starting line-up.
Ironically Arsenal may now have to depend on the result of Chelsea’s game against Tottenham to help them over the Champions League line.
The Blues had moved decisively back towards the Champions League with a 2-0 win over Swansea thanks to two goals in three minutes just before half-time.
Oscar scored the first then, after Leon Britton took down Juan Mata, Frank Lampard converted a penalty for his 201st club goal – one short of the record set by 1960s’ hero Bobby Tambling who was introduced to the crowd during half-time.
Lampard thus equalled one-time Manchester United striker Andy Cole’s record of scoring against 38 other clubs in the Premier League.
** Reading and Queens Park Rangers were both relegated after their goalless draw.