By Richard Clarke
Arsenal have it all to do in the title race.
Sunday's 2-0 defeat in West London leaves Arsène Wenger's side nine points adrift of the Stamford Bridge outfit with just 13 games left to play.
The Chelsea goals this afternoon came, as ever, from Didier Drogba. The Ivorian touched home John Terry's header as early as the eighth minute. Arsenal had significant pressure after that but, as against Manchester United seven days earlier, they conceded a crucial second on the break.
In the 23rd minute, Frank Lampard's ball found the galloping Drogba, who cut inside and thrashed a shot past Manuel Almunia. It was his 12th goal in his last 10 games against Arsenal.
At the time, it was hard on the visitors territorially but, this afternoon, a ruthless Chelsea punished Arsenal whenever they had the opportunity and, in Drogba, they have one of the best strikers in Europe.
Only the bar denied him a hat-trick when he fired in a free-kick 10 minutes from time.
Despite this result, no-one should discount Arsenal's aspirations just yet. That happened last time they lost to Chelsea at the end of November. But the assumption was entirely wrong.
This has been a rollercoaster of title race. Expect more ups and down before May.
Wenger's side showed two important changes from the one well beaten by Manchester United a week ago.
Fit-again Abou Diaby replaced Denilson in central midfield while Theo Walcott began on the right of the attacking trio instead of Tomas Rosicky. It was only the fourth Premier League start of the season for the England international.
Apart from Michael Essien and Jose Bosingwa, Chelsea had all their major names available.
This was a huge afternoon for Arsenal. Despite the hype, their awesome foursome of fixtures did not have to define their season - but unfortunately it seemed that it might.
The goalless draw at Villa 10 days ago had been worthy enough but the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United last Sunday had been comprehensive. It poured pressure on today, the hardest fixture of the quartet. With ever-improving Liverpool due at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal certainly needed a massive improvement from their display seven days earlier.
In fairness, they started well enough. As early as the fourth minute Bacary Sagna clipped a cross to Fabregas in the D. He fed Nasri and the Frenchman fired wide from the left of the area.
Until their opening goal, Chelsea had only caused Arsenal minor scares. But the strike would prove to be a telling moment.
Gael Clichy bumped Anelka on the right and Drogba fired in the free kick. Walcott nodded it behind for a corner that Florent Malouda floated to Terry. The Chelsea captain rose highest and powered a header toward the far post where Drogba touched home.
Despite the goal, the visitors went on to enjoy the lion's share of possession and territory. They won a succession of corners and, in the 16th minute, should have equalised. Fabregas found space on the right and floated an angled pass to Arshavin. The Russian met the ball with a powerful, sidefoot volley from eight yards. It was too close to Cech, who kicked the ball away.
Arsenal were playing well. Their tails were up and they fancied the job.
Then they got caught on the break.
Lampard carried the ball clear from another Arsenal attack. Drogba latched on to his pass and roared up the right. He cut inside Clichy and Vermaelen before thumping home from eight yards out. It was a great finish but, on the balance of play, it was a stolen goal.
In response, Fabregas fired wide after another promising move but by now Chelsea's cushion was making them more expansive. Ashley Cole burst through into the area only to be bundled off the ball by the backtracking Walcott.
Until the break, Arsenal soldiered on but, as ever, Chelsea's defending was excellent. Throughout the first half, the visitors had got in promising positions but only once had they truly tested Cech.
Wenger's men had been losing at the interval in this fixture last season but came back to win. They attempted a repeat job straight away when Diaby cracked an effort wide and just before the hour Nasri burst through only to be denied by Ashley Cole on the edge of the area. However, in between, those efforts Drogba set up Malouda to drive narrowly wide.
Once again, Arsenal were cranking up the pressure and penning back Chelsea. Wenger added to that anxiety by withdrawing Walcott and bringing on Nicklas Bendtner. As a result, Arshavin dropped to the left and Nasri went right.
Almost immediately after coming on, the Dane was clipped by Ricardo Carvalho just outside the area. Fabregas fired in a low free-kick that went through the wall but was beaten away by Cech. An excellent save given the keeper would have seen the ball only after it had emerged through a thicket of legs in a crowded area.
Then Wenger threw on Rosicky and Eboue for Diaby and Sagna. But by now Chelsea seemed comfortable with their cushion once more.
Ten minutes from time, Drogba cracked a free-kick against the bar from 25 yards and then Anelka hacked a shot high.
It was an indication that Arsenal's challenge had wained. At the whistle, the visitors could only lament what might have been had they taken their chances... and Chelsea had been less lethal.
Wenger's side are not out of the title race but their ascent must now be super steep.
- Sagna 74
- Song Yellow Card
- Diaby 74
- Fabregas (C) Yellow Card
- Walcott 64
- Eboue 74
- Rosicky 74
- Bendtner 64
- Terry (C)
- Ballack 81
- John Obi Mikel
- Drogba 90 Goal! Goal!
- Anelka 87
- Cole 87 Yellow Card
- Zhirkov 81 Yellow Card
- Kalou 90