By Richard Clarke
Didier Drogba struck twice in 10 second-half minutes at Stamford Bridge on Sunday to consign Arsenal to only their second Premier League defeat of the season and put a large dent in their title hopes.
It looked like Arsène Wenger's side were going to keep pace with the day's early winners, Manchester United, at the top of the table when Bacary Sagna's header put them in front just before the hour.
However Drogba capitalised on consternation in the Arsenal area to score with a thumping low shot in the 72nd minute and then a bobbling, hooked effort in the 82nd.
It was a little harsh on the visitors in an evenly-matched affair. However the cold hard facts are that Wenger's men are now third, six points ahead adrift of Manchester United with just seven games left.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side have to come to Stamford Bridge and entertain Arsenal at Old Trafford. So nothing is decided.
But Arsenal have it all to do now.
Before kick-off it was difficult to distinguish what had sent more of an icy shudder down the spine of Arsenal's travelling support - the snow that had fallen on London overnight or Manchester United's 3-0 win against Liverpool at lunchtime. It added pressure to a game that was already critical.
Arsenal's form had been subdued in recent weeks. Four draws had seen a five-point lead transformed into a three-point deficit before today. A fifth straight stalemate would equal a run last achieved by Arsenal back in February 1994. While an away win would be Chelsea's first defeat at Stamford Bridge for 78 games.
In the build-up, the manager had argued his side, unchanged from last week draw with Middlesbrough, were over their lethargy of recent weeks and felt confident they would win the title.
Of course, Manchester United's win meant even victory would not claw back ground in the title race but it would help them regain momentum and confidence.
The start was cagey and both teams took time to settle. After five minutes, Michael Ballack's thumping free-kick was held by Manuel Almunia.
Chelsea probably edged the opening stages but had little to show for it. Arsenal only started to stir when, on the quarter-hour, Hleb darted in to the area and found Van Persie, who sliced his effort wide.
In the 25th minute, the Arsenal defence were caught napping by John Terry's long punt forward. Drogba was clear for a second but, with Gallas tracking back desperately, he could only knee the ball tamely into Almunia's arms.
Just before the half-hour, Gael Clichy's cross was knocked forward by Emmanuel Adebayor and, from just six-yards, an off-balance Emmanuel Eboue sent a trickling shot goalward. Carlo Cudicini, who was also caught unawares, flicked out a foot to clear.
Finally the game was starting to ignite, although we could have done without a flurry of bookings.
Six minutes before the break, each side had chances to break the deadlock. First Kolo Toure nodded on a Cesc Fabregas corner and William Gallas stabbed a shot against the post. However the assistant referee had already flagged for offside.
Almost immediately, at the other end, Salomon Kalou missed his kick eight yards out and, from the rebound, Toure blocked Terry's effort.
As the seconds ticked away, Chelsea threatened. Ballack's shot forced Almunia to save low at his near post then, in the final action of the half, the keeper toe-poked clear when a cross from Joe Cole.
Arsenal started the second half with purpose. Mathieu Flamini nearly reprised his goal from last year but this time the Frenchman's drive was blocked.
In the 55th minute, Claude Makelele's lofted through ball sent Drogba clear but Gallas roared back in pursuit. His presence certainly had an effect as the Ivorian slashed his effort way over the bar.
You sensed the game - and indeed maybe Arsenal's Premier League campaign -was in the balance.
So it was the perhaps time for the visitors to take the lead.
In the 58th minute, Arsenal won a corner on the left. Fabregas' fired it to the near post where Sagna arrived on cue to squeeze in a stooping header. An utterly crucial goal from the most unlikely route.
But almost immediately Kalou forced Gallas to steer a nervous clearance over this own bar.
It was turning into a war and there were starting to be casualties. Eboue, Toure, Sagna and Ricardo Carvalho all required treatment. Only the goalscorer was forced off. Diaby came on.
But Chelsea did make two unforced changes, bringing on Nicolas Anelka and Juliano Belletti. Within a minute of the substitutions, Chelsea were level.
Drogba chested down a long pass forward, Frank Lampard and Toure failed to get the ball under full control and it fell nicely for the Ivorian to ram home a low shot from the edge of the area.
Now Chelsea were in charge. Anelka dragged a shot wide when he should have done much better.
Then, in the 81st minute, Drogba grabbed the second. Belletti crossed from the right, Anelka nodded on and the striker shrugged off his marker to hook home. Almunia got a hand on the ball but it was not strong enough to prevent it bobbling in.
Arsenal could not muster much in response and, at the end of the game, Gallas threw his shirt to the visiting crowd before leaving the pitch with a disappointed - but not yet resigned - look on face.
- Sagna 72 Goal!
- Flamini 88
- Eboue Yellow Card
- van Persie 76
- Walcott 76
- Diaby 72
- Bendtner 88
- Cole Yellow Card
- Ballack 70 Yellow Card
- Makelele 70
- Drogba Goal! Goal! Yellow Card
- Belletti 70
- Anelka 70