Arsenal and Chelsea’s EFL Cup semi-final now hangs in the balance after the Gunners got away with a 0-0 draw in the first leg at Stamford Bridge.
Arsene Wenger will definitely feel much the happier of the two managers after escaping with a draw that will ease the pressure that had been building on him after the humiliating 4-2 defeat at Nottingham Forest that sent Arsenal out of the FA Cup in the third round for the first time in his reign.
While Antonio Conte named what was largely a very strong side, Wenger opted to do without Alexis Sanchez, confined to the bench as Alex Iwobi, Danny Welbeck and Alexandre Lacazette were tasked with repeating the high-pressing job they performed so admirably in a 0-0 draw at Stamford bridge in September.
They repeated the trick again in a first half that was terribly low on quality as both sides swamped the midfield.
Arsenal in particular deployed a sextet in front of the backline whenever they lost possession, Welbeck and Iwobi tucking in or harrying those in possession.
Moments of quality were few and far between but Wilshere provided exactly that midway into the opening period, delivering a perfectly-weighted ball over the Blues backline and into the path of Alexandre Lacazette, who has been crying out for these sort of passes during his first season at Arsenal. However he could not take advantage, as he volleyed wildly off target.
Only once would Arsenal test Thibaut Courtois in the first half, Alex Iwobi’s snap-shot from the edge of the area pushed to safety by the Chelsea goalkeeper.
Wenger, sat right behind this writer in the press box, appeared to be growing increasingly frustrated at Arsenal’s wayward passing – loudly shouting “why” at one ball over the top by Calum Chambers and bemoaning a low cross by Hector Bellerin.
However, there were equally worrying signs at the back, where Cesc Fabregas was able to ghost into the area unmarked only to head straight at David Ospina, who had spilled two shots in quick succession earlier in the stanza. This time he did not allow a Chelsea player to pounce.
The hosts exerted greater pressure going into the second half, but the spectres that haunted Alvaro Morata at the Emirates last week seemed to have returned when a corner bounced off his shin at close range only to roll to safety.
Jack Wilshere’s departure with an injury to his left ankle hampered Arsenal’s attacking cohesion even further, with Lacazette ploughing an ever more lonely furrow at the tip of the Gunners’ frontline until he was replaced by Alexis Sanchez with 25 minutes to go.
However Arsenal held firm under Chelsea’s bombardment, with the outstretched leg of Shkodran Mustafi denying Victor Moses’ fizzing low drive before Andreas Christensen headed a corner wide with Ospina stranded in no-man’s land.
Iwobi spurned a rare counter for Arsenal when, with three players in support, he punted a through ball that may have been intended as a shot into Courtois’ arms. Chelsea wouldn’t punish the visitors, though Wenger’s exertions in the closing minutes that his side push the tempo were also to no avail.