Arsenal 3 – 1 Chelsea
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at The Emirates
Arsenal imposed their authority on the Premier League title race in emphatic fashion with a stylish victory over Chelsea at The Emirates.
Arsene Wenger admitted halting a barren run of 11 games in all competitions against closest rivals Chelsea and Manchester United – including 10 defeats – would provide a psychological lift as they bid to secure their first silverware since 2005.
And they will take huge confidence from the manner and margin of their first win against Chelsea since a 2-1 triumph at Stamford Bridge in November 2008.
Alex Song put them on the path to victory with a goal seconds before the interval, but the real damage was inflicted on Chelsea with a double salvo from Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott in the space of two minutes just after the restart.
Wengers Magic Hat
Branislav Ivanovic’s header set up the prospect of an anxious last 30 minutes for Arsenal, but it never materialised as they held out comfortably in the face of a timid Chelsea challenge.
Didier Drogba, for so long the scourge of Arsenal with 13 goals in 13 games before this defeat, remained a peripheral figure and his only flash of serious aggression came in an angry confrontation with Chelsea captain John Terry after Walcott put Arsenal three up.
Wenger’s game plan worked to perfection, with the recalled Johan Djourou helping to keep Drogba at bay, Fabregas ruling midfield as he started again after injury and Walcott performing the dual role of ensuring Ashley Cole’s attacking instincts were curbed by his presence and terrorising Chelsea with his pace.
Arsenal’s fans celebrated as if they knew the significance of this result and three points that will surely inject them with real self-belief as the title enters its second phase.
For Chelsea, their decline continues from the golden days of early season as they lacked inspiration and a threadbare squad was exposed by the attacking variety Arsenal had on the bench and in reserve.
Carlo Ancelotti will be under pressure to turn their fortunes around, but perhaps the greater pressure is on owner Roman Abramovich to make funds available to rejuvenate the squad and restore some semblance of an equilibrium that seems to have been disturbed by the unceremonious sacking of the popular Ray Wilkins.
Chelsea, as expected, recalled Frank Lampard for his first start following a four-month absence with a groin problem but he was unable to exert any serious influence as Arsenal controlled the first half.
Drogba posted Chelsea’s only serious threat with an effort that he pulled just wide and a header that was deflected over the top, while Fabregas marked his return to the Arsenal starting line up by pulling the strings in midfield.
Robin Van Persie, leading Arsenal’s attack with Marouane Chamakh and Andrey Arshavin relegated to the bench, was twice off target as the old flaw of failing to transform possession into goals against Chelsea threatened to resurface.
Samir Nasri‘s delicate chip brought a fine save from Chelsea keeper Petr Cech before Song gave Arsenal the lead they deserved a minute before the interval. They owed a debt to fine refereeing from Mark Clattenburg, who played a crucial advantage after Paulo Ferreira appeared to foul Fabregas to allow Song to slide a close-range finish past Cech.
Ancelotti made a change at the start of the second half, sending on Ramires for Jon Mikel Obi, but his plans were in shreds as Arsenal struck twice in the space of two minutes just after the restart.
Fabregas added the second from Walcott’s pass after Michael Essien inadvertently turned the ball towards his own goal. Walcott then sent The Emirates into ecstasy by adding a third in Arsenal’s next attack, racing clear to beat Cech as Fabregas returned the favour with a perfect pass to send him through.
Chelsea were stunned and their frustrations surfaced as Drogba and Terry were involved in a furious exchange of views near the centre circle as Arsenal’s elated players celebrated.
Ancelotti’s side needed a swift response to offer any hope of a revival and it came after 57 minutes when Ivanovic reached Drogba’s angled free-kick ahead of keeper Lukasz Fabianski to head home.
Wenger was furious in his technical area, but Nasri should have calmed his nerves when he took advantage of more Chelsea uncertainty at the back only to fire tamely at Cech.
Chelsea probed in the closing stages, but Arsenal were never in serious discomfort and closed out an outstanding triumph.