LONDON, May 9 – A sense of anti-climax will hang heavy over the Emirates Stadium as Arsenal and Chelsea return to Premier League action on Sunday after their dispiriting exits from the Champions League in midweek.Although the manner of Arsenal’s comprehensive semi-final defeat to Manchester United couldn’t have contrasted more with Chelsea’s agonising stoppage time loss to Barcelona, the end result was same; a nine-month quest to be crowned king of Europe for the first time terminated with the holy grail within touching distance.
Although Chelsea were closer to reaching the Rome final, the consequences for both these London rivals will be felt long after the bitter memories have started to fade.
While the history books will record that Andreas Iniesta’s away goal was the cause of Chelsea’s exit, no player or supporter at Stamford Bridge blamed anyone but Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo, who turned down four strong penalty claims by Guus Hiddink’s team.
Defeat in such controversial circumstances was too much to take for Didier Drogba, who harangued Ovrebo as he left the pitch and continued his foul-mouthed rant to a live television audience before running down the tunnel to continue his verbal assault of the referee.
Hiddink insists Drogba, who could miss Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, won’t be punished by Chelsea because he apologised publicly.
But the Ivory Coast striker and team-mate Michael Ballack, who is also accused of abusing Ovrebo, could face lengthy European bans and it remains to be seen if either will even be at Chelsea next season.
With Hiddink set to return to his role as Russia coach, there are likely to be substantial changes on the horizon for an aging team that once has fallen short in Europe once too often and Drogba and Ballack could lead the departures.
Hiddink knows Chelsea, six points behind leaders United, must refocus because a win this weekend would stretch their lead over fourth-placed Arsenal to nine points with only two games to play, giving the Blues a guaranteed place in the Champions League next season, while Arsenal would have to endure the qualifying stages.
"We must be strong. The players must put what happened behind them and be very energetic," Hiddink said.
Wenger expects Chelsea to find it harder to get back on track quickly than Arsenal because Hiddink’s team suffered a more crushing exit.
"I believe Chelsea have the right to be more disappointed than us because they were qualified and you could not see how Barcelona could come back," Wenger said.
"The game on Sunday will be down to the team who deals best with the disappointment, who wants it more and who has more strength of character."
While Chelsea try to recover their equilibrium, Wenger stubbornly refuses to let the obvious gulf in class between his side and United change his philosophy of youth development.
The Arsenal boss will look to strengthen his squad in the close-season but he has no intention of bringing in new faces at the expense of the club’s emerging talent.
"If you look at our team on Tuesday, our oldest player in midfield was 22. They were in the best four teams in Europe, so why should we panic?" Wenger said.
"I believe we have to take on the chin the critics, but it is down to how strongly we believe in ourselves and how good I think the team is.
"You cannot imagine that we work as we did with young players and give them a chance, then let them go.
"We are criticised because we play young players, then we are supposed to let them go when they are in a position where they start to perform at the top level? That is not acceptable."
Wenger’s hopes of closing the gap on Chelsea will be dented if Andrey Arshavin fails to recover from a virus that forced the Russian midfielder to miss two days training this week.