Chelsea produced another solid defensive display to frustrate Arsenal as their Barclays Premier League clash ended 0-0 at Emirates Stadium.
Article continues below ...
Blues boss Roberto Di Matteo made sweeping changes to the side which had battled to a 1-0 home win over Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night.
However, the game plan remained very much the same, with the Gunners – who twice hit the woodwork in the first half – denied time and space as they failed to bounce back from the disappointment of Monday night’s shock defeat here by Wigan.
Chelsea can head to Spain knowing more of the same will be good enough to progress against the odds, while Arsenal, who lost winger Theo Walcott to a potentially season-ending hamstring injury, still have some work to do if they are to secure third place ahead of Tottenham and Newcastle.
Chelsea, with recalled Fernando Torres leading the line, felt they had an early penalty shout when Salomon Kalou got ahead of Bacary Sagna down the left.
However, despite the players coming together before the Chelsea forward, making his 250th appearance, went down, referee Mike Dean waved play on.
In the 13th minute, Michael Essien bundled over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to concede a free-kick 20 yards out on the left of center.
Walcott whipped the ball over to the far post, where Robin van Persie arrived late to stab the ball against the outside of the woodwork.
Arsenal – whose 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge in October was the beginning of the end for former Blues boss Andre Villas-Boas – continued to press Chelsea back, but lacked a telling pass in the final third.
The visitors, meanwhile, looked dangerous on the swift counter attack, with Florent Malouda making headway down the left and his cross into the six-yard box was hacked clear by Laurent Koscielny.
The tempo of the match dropped significantly, with Arsenal players showing a distinct lack of movement on and off the ball as the visitors easily turned over possession.
Just like Barcelona had in midweek, Arsenal hit the woodwork again five minutes before the break.
This time, Van Persie was the architect, his floated free-kick into the Chelsea box picking out Koscielny, whose header looped over Petr Cech, but came back off the crossbar.
Arsenal maintained the pressure, with Cech standing up well at the near post to deflect Van Persie’s shot clear after another ball swept through the Chelsea box from the right by Alex Song.
Di Matteo switched Torres out to the flank for the second half, with Daniel Sturridge down the middle.
Arsenal remained too casual with their choice of final pass when in promising positions, while the visitors always looked dangerous on the break.
Thomas Vermaelen made a fine saving tackle to deny Sturridge on the edge of the area.
As the hour mark approached, Walcott pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring problem.
The England winger, though, was able to continue, only to then break down as he tried to get away down the right and was replaced by Gervinho.
Arsenal upped the tempo again, but Van Persie cracked a 25-yard free-kick high into the Clock End.
Gunners boss Arsene Wenger made another change on 63 minutes, as the hard-working Tomas Rosicky was replaced by Abou Diaby, back from a series of injury problems.
Chelsea then replaced midfielder Oriol Romeu with John Obi Mikel.
Arsenal’s final substitution came with 21 minutes left as Brazil wing-back Andre Santos replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Juan Mata – who was on Wenger’s radar before his move to Stamford Bridge from Valencia – came on for Kalou as the match showed little signs of sparking into life as the last 15 minutes approached before former Gunner Ashley Cole replaced Ryan Bertrand to the expected warm reception from the home fans.
Van Persie went down in a heap under pressure from Gary Cahill, but the referee waved away the half-hearted penalty appeals.
The Dutchman then blazed wide after John Terry slipped to let him into the right side of the Chelsea box.
Arsenal had enough of the ball in the closing stages, but as for the majority of the match, failed to make the most of it.
For Chelsea, this was overall another hard-working effort, with plenty more of the same needed in the Nou Camp on Tuesday night.