Chelsea get home fires burning
Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1:Rafael Benitez finally enjoyed some home comfort today as Chelsea avoided throwing away another two-goal lead by clinging on to beat Arsenal.
It was very nearly Groundhog Day at snowy Stamford Bridge, with the Gunners making amends for an appalling first-half performance through Theo Walcott’s first goal since signing his new contract.
But it was not enough to overturn the two-goal head start they gifted Chelsea, with Juan Mata’s strike and Frank Lampard’s penalty, his 195th goal for the club, ultimately proving the difference.
A Premier League double over Arsenal also saw the third-placed Blues move 11 points clear of their opponents and cast serious doubt over the top-four credentials of Arsene Wenger’s men.
Amid the almost relentless negativity that seems to dog Chelsea, there was finally some positive news to report over Ashley Cole’s future ahead of today’s game.
Talk of a new contract being agreed succeeded in appeasing disgruntled supporters who had witnessed just two wins in their previous seven Stamford Bridge outings.
Benitez was spared his usual frosty reception, despite the wintry weather, with abuse reserved instead for an Arsenal team for whom suffering has become second nature.
That might have all changed had Olivier Giroud not drilled narrowly wide in the fifth minute after being threaded in by Walcott, a miss that proved decisive, with Chelsea sweeping ahead in controversial fashion less than a minute later.
Francis Coquelin was arguably fouled by Ramires and the ball broke to Cesar Azpilicueta, whose crossfield pass found Mata, the Spaniard controlling the ball before lashing left-footed into the roof of the net.
Petr Cech tipped Santi Cazorla’s sumptuous drive behind and Eden Hazard tested Gunners goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny after a dazzling run.
Arsenal’s back line were all over the place, especially out wide, and Chelsea doubled their lead in the 16th minute with embarrassing ease.
Mata found Ramires in acres of space six yards out and the Brazilian tempted Szczesny into conceding a penalty, but crucially avoiding a red card, which Lampard slotted home.
Cue the predictable chants of “Sign him up”, as Stamford Bridge rocked to the kind of noise rarely witnessed under Benitez.
Chelsea’s control remained virtually absolute, although worrying parallels were developing with Wednesday’s capitulation against Southampton as chances began to dry up.
Ramires blasted over after a typically barnstorming run 10 minutes before the break but Arsenal began to look more menacing as half-time approached.
Fernando Torres squandered a chance to settle the nerves with a woeful effort seconds before the break.
And like Southampton four days earlier, Arsenal approached the restart with renewed vigour, Per Mertesacker and Walcott both testing Cech inside three minutes.
Giroud’s miscued header was another warning Chelsea failed to heed as Walcott halved the deficit in the 58th minute.
As for the opening goal, there was an element of controversy as Torres went down injured in the middle of the field.
Otherwise, it was all about the brilliance of Cazorla and Walcott, the former’s inch-perfect through ball finding the latter’s perfectly-timed run, with a clipped finish to match.
Aaron Ramsey immediately replaced Coquelin before Walcott threatened again with a darting run and shanked finish, Chelsea’s nerves beginning to betray them.
Mata was booked for kicking the ball away uncharacteristically and Torres overran the ball after skinning Thomas Vermaelen.
Arsenal had completely overturned Chelsea’s dominance out wide and Benitez took action by sending on Ryan Bertrand for Oscar after Ramires forced a scrambling Szczesny save.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger soon turned to Andrey Arshavin at the expense of Abou Diaby before Jack Wilshere was denied even a free-kick after being caught by the flailing arm of Ramires.
Torres’s departure for Demba Ba finally elicited a cheer from an increasingly jittery home support and they should have been celebrating again when the substitute beat Szczesny to a ball over the top but saw his finish blocked on the line by Vermaelen.
Chelsea were edging towards victory but Cole’s trip on Bacary Sagna gave Arsenal a free-kick which Vermaelen drilled just wide.
Bertrand’s blocked volley drew futile handball appeals before the Gunners laid siege to their opponents goal, Gary Cahill producing stoppage-time heroics and Giroud’s looping header sailing just over the crossbar.