Yes, it’s only preseason, a glorified friendly as they say. But still, far better to be on the winning side of the annual Community Shield that pits the Premier League winner against the FA Cup holder. And as Arsenal emerged from Sunday’s clash as deserving 1-0 winner against Chelsea, pundits around the world of football could be heard quietly shuffling the decks on their preseason predictions.
Again, preseason friendlies are rarely an accurate predictor of what’s to come, and Chelsea remains the clear favorite to retain the Premier League title. But in light of Arsenal’s performance against them Saturday and Manchester City’s thumping at the hands of Stuttgart the day before, it’s increasingly looking like the Gunners might be Chelsea’s biggest rivals in the coming season.
Arsene Wenger’s side appears to have picked up right about where it left off last term. After struggling in the early months of the season, the Gunners put together a stellar run of results that saw them temper their all-out attacking sensibilities with a newly minted defensive pragmatism. It was the same Saturday at Wembley. After Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put them ahead by smashing a left-footed shot into the roof of the net from inside the 18, the Gunners took a more measured approach to seeing out the win, particularly in the second half.
Just as the memories of a nine-year trophy drought continue to fade, following two FA Cups and two Community Shields in as many seasons, there was no sign of the inferiority complex that has plagued Arsenal in far too many meeting with their London rivals over recent years. This Arsenal team has grown up.
The victory was a particularly sweet one for Wenger as it was the first time in 14 meetings with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea that he’d ever come out on top. While the Frenchman has downplayed the significance of this, football is a superstitious business and somewhere in Wenger’s psyche it must feel as if some kind of invisible hoodoo has been lifted.
Still, it’s important not to get carried away with results like these. Arsenal convincingly rousted City in the same competition just 12 months ago, only to spend most of the following season in their wake. But the rebuilding project that’s been underway at Arsenal since the destabilizing departures of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie seems to be nearing completion.
Against his old team, goalkeeper Peter Cech demonstrated himself to be a pretty big piece of the puzzle. While a Chelsea side that was surprisingly lackluster on the day didn’t overly test him, he made a few good saves and commanded his penalty area in a way that none of Arsenal’s recent keepers have shown themselves to be capable of.
There’s still a lingering sense that this Arsenal team are almost there, but not quite. However if persistent rumors in Spain about the Gunners plotting a move for Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema pan out (and they can finally sign a top-class defensive midfielder), it would be difficult to rule Wenger’s side out as title contenders. Much will depend on what happens between now and when the summer transfer window closes on September 1.