By Richard Clarke
This was a horrible end to a horrible week.
Having been knocked out of the Champions League at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday, Arsenal suffered their heaviest defeat on their ‘new’ ground when they went down 4-1 to Chelsea on Sunday.
This was the strangest of games. Arsène Wenger’s side were superb for much of the opening half-hour but were rocked on their heels when Alex nodded home Didier Drogba’s free-kick in the 28th minute. Nicolas Anelka scored another from distance shortly afterwards and, to add insult to injury, Kolo Toure turned the ball into his own net four minutes into the second half.
Nicklas Bendtner’s header raised remote hopes of a comeback in the 70th minute but Florent Malouda’s late tap-in gave the scoreline a skewed look given the balance of play.
Arguably Arsenal had created the better chances but certainly Chelsea had taken theirs more clinically.
This head-scratching defeat ended Wenger's 21-game unbeaten run in the Premier League and kills off the prospect of a third-place finish.
The League table does not lie but, rest assured, Arsenal will play worse and win next season.
And of course, next season now can’t come soon enough for everyone at Emirates Stadium.
Before kick-off, Wenger made three changes from the defeat to Manchester United in midweek.
Manuel Almunia had picked up an ankle problem - the same injury that had cost him a couple of games last month - so Lukasz Fabianski deputised.
Mikael Silvestre returned for Johan Djourou at centre back while, on the team-sheet at least, Abou Diaby replaced Emmanuel Adebayor. However it was Van Persie who deputised as the lone frontman.
Andrey Arshavin succumbed to the flu that had stopped him training on Thursday and Friday.
Chelsea had only one alteration from the side knocked out by Barcelona on Wednesday with John Obi Mikel coming into midfield for Michael Ballack.
Despite the changes, this game was still a barometre of the prevailing mood at the week’s Champions League losers.
Both teams had question marks against them given the nature of their European exits. But who had recovered quicker?
In the opening half-hour at least, the answer was most certainly Arsenal.
Within seconds of the first whistle, Theo Walcott drove through the middle only to see his effort go wide.
On 10 minutes, the England winger exchanged passes with Nasri before forcing Petr Cech in to a fine save at the near post.
Inbetween those efforts Samir Nasri had a momentary sight of goal and Cesc Fabregas drove through with intent.
In the 12th minute Walcott reached the right-hand byline and cut the ball back perfectly for the onrushing Diaby. The Frenchman prodded his effort beyond the far post when he should have scored.
Arsenal were clearly the superior side. Chelsea still seemed to have their minds on Wednesday night.
Frank Lampard’s flailing shot was as much as they could muster in the first quarter. They seemed overwhelmed by a barrage of Arsenal attacks.
In the 14th minute, Fabregas burst clear, forcing Cech to come out and smother. Then, in the best move of the game so far, Diaby snaked his way up the left and crossed low for Walcott at the far post. He elected to sidefoot the ball back where it had come from. Unfortunately the youngster got his angles slightly wrong and it sailed wide.
The sight of Guus Hiddink on the edge of his technical area smacked of concern. Midway through the half, Chelsea responded with the first clear effort on goal. Ashley Cole dribbled up the left and cut the ball back for Malouda to sweep a shot towards goal.
However it was still an isolated effort. Shortly afterwards Nasri’s free-kick was deflected high into the air and Diaby set up Alex Song to send a swivelling shot just past the post.
It seemed just a matter of time until there was a goal.
However you could not see it coming from Chelsea.
In the 28th minute Drogba won a foul 30 yards out. It was about the same position from which Cristiano Ronaldo had fired home that cruel free-kick on Tuesday. Yet again the referee’s decision was dubious but the execution exquisite. Drogba floated the ball towards Alex, who rose highest to power home a header off the bar.
There was a bitter irony in the Brazilian scoring that goal. Of course, Alex had inflicted a Champions League exit on Arsenal in 2007 when he had nodded a late equaliser into the same net for PSV in the Knockout Round second leg.
But whatever the backstory, a sucker-punch goal was the last thing Arsenal needed – or indeed deserved – this afternoon.
Incredibly, it was nearly 2-0 straightaway when Malouda sent Drogba clear. Fortunately, Toure dispossessed his Ivory Coast colleague at the crucial moment. Then Fabregas had Arsenal hearts in mouths. The captain had been booked for the foul that had led to the goal. On another day referee Phil Dowd might have given him a second when he sent Malouda tumbling in midfield.
Arsenal nearly got on level terms in the 36th minute when Fabregas reached the byline and his cross was backflicked towards goal by Van Persie at the near post. Jose Bosingwa booted the ball clear.
It was another well-crafted chance that lacked a finish. And this time Arsenal would be made to pay a heavy price.
Six minutes from the break, Anelka collected the ball in midfield with little on. With the Arsenal defence backing off, the Frenchman had time to advance and let fly.
This he did. His bending, swerving effort beat Fabianski and arrowed in the far corner.
It could have been 3-0 in first half injury time. Malouda’s pass found Anelka on the left and the former Arsenal striker fired low but Fabianski saved well with his legs.
As on Tuesday, Arsenal were 2-0 down at the break having been the better side before conceding the first goal. Only this time that period had been 28 minutes not just eight!
It had been a crazy turnaround of a first half but it would get even worse at the start of the second.
Four minutes in, Cole broke into space on the left and crossed low into the area. Toure was well aware of Drogba’s presence so he thrust out a leg to intercept. Unfortunately he only succeeded in diverting the ball past Fabianski and just inside the near post. A luckless own goal and sadly typically of Arsenal’s luck today.
However the home side were still creating chances. Before the hour, Fabregas had hurriedly volleyed wide at the near post and Walcott had fired beyond the far post when he had time to pick his spot.
By the time Bosingwa blazed over, Wenger had brought on Bendtner. In the 67th minute he threw his last two cards on the poker table – Adebayor for Walcott and Denilson for Song.
The effect was almost immediate. Bendtner reduced the arrears by burying Sagna’s deep cross with a firm header.
Cech also held the Dane’s effort on the line and Adebayor claimed a penalty after being bundled over by Bosingwa.
Arsenal were at least trying to stir themselves for the finale.
Van Persie then headed straight at Cech and, during a scramble, Gibbs and Toure both had efforts blocked.
With four minutes left, Arsenal thought they had another penalty when Adebayor was felled by Cech. Replays proved referee Dowd was correct not to give it.
Chelsea went up the other end and scored again. Malouda’s initial shot was saved by Fabianski but the ball fell to Anelka. His angled shot cannoned back off the base of the post straight to the Frenchman who stabbed home from point-blank range.
An unfortunate goal really but this was a day when nothing had gone for Arsenal.
With their season decided once and for all, now they can start the summer's rebuilding work in earnest.
- Fabregas (C) Yellow Card
- Song 67
- Diaby 59
- Walcott 68
- Adebayor 68
- Denilson 67
- Bendtner 59 Goal!
- Terry (C)
- Alex Goal!
- Malouda 88 Goal!
- Bosingwa 77
- Anelka Goal!
- Ivanovic 77
- Ballack 88