A second stalemate of the season between Chelsea and Manchester United saw the fallen powers slip further from relevance in this unusual Premier League season.
The 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge did little to help either team on Sunday, which began by Arsenal beating Bournemouth 2-0 to rise to third.
United remains lodged in fifth and the gap to the fourth Champions League place has grown to six points, adding to the sense of uncertainty surrounding the future of manager Louis van Gaal, despite some promising signs from the team.
Chelsea remains in the lower reaches of the standings – 13th – closer to the relegation zone than its usual place among the top four elite.
The one positive for Chelsea is that the ailing champions remain unbeaten since Guus Hiddink was brought in as manager until the end of the season in December to replace the fired Jose Mourinho.
The Blues left it late to rescue a point against United. The game had entered stoppage time when Cesc Fabregas threaded a pass beyond a slipping Daley Blind to Diego Costa, who rounded goalkeeper David De Gea before netting the equalizer.
During Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign, the record 20-time champions became renowned for scoring late goals in “Fergie Time.” When that was pointed out to Van Gaal in a soft post-match question, the manager wrongly interpreted it as a further contrast between the current struggles and the glory-filled period under Ferguson.
“Maybe you remember also the first years of Fergie?” Van Gaal said, referring to Ferguson’s four-year wait to win a trophy in his 26-year reign. “You have to study statistics.”
The most important current statistic at United is the gap from the top four and the dozen points separating the team from leader Leicester.
United had dictated the pace of Sunday’s game, initially showcasing a newly-discovered vigor and passing precision, but only scored in the 61st minute. It was a passage of play that demonstrated the potential in Van Gaal’s side. The build-up involved interplay between Juan Mata and Anthony Martial. Then Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s cross was teed up by Wayne Rooney for Jesse Lingard to volley on the turn into the net.
“We continued with our good, attacking football,” said Van Gaal, whose side held Chelsea 0-0 at home in December. “We have created a lot of chances here at Chelsea. It’s a nasty away game, I think, and one that’s not so easy.
“The last few years Manchester United haven’t won here so it’s not an easy match and we took the lead with a fantastic goal. A fantastic cross also. Then you can control the game, but in the last quarter we gave it away.”
On the south-coast, though, Arsenal emerged from its January slump. Arsenal had failed to win in four league games and not scored in three of them until traveling to Bournemouth.
Mesut Ozil scored his first goal since December’s reverse fixture against Bournemouth and within 90 seconds Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ended a 17-month league goal drought.
“We had four games without a win – when you play at the top that’s a long period, so your confidence drops a little bit,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.
Arsenal moved behind second-place north London rival Tottenham on goal difference. Coming up for Arsenal next Sunday is a home match against Leicester, the surprise leader which sent Manchester City tumbling to fourth by winning their encounter 3-1 on Saturday.
“Leicester running away and us playing them next week, (makes) the game interesting,” Wenger said. “It was very important for us to win today.”