Before this game, Arsenal already faced the steepest of ascents back to the summit of the Premiership table. Now the climb will be all the steeper.
Chelsea triumphed at Highbury on Sunday afternoon thanks to Arjen Robben's 39th minute breakaway effort and Joe Cole's individual goal 18 minutes from time.
The opening strike came at the end of a half which Arsenal had flourished. The visitors had pressure early on but then Thierry Henry hit a post for Arsene Wenger's side and Robin van Persie had a goal disallowed. Robben's goal was certainly less than they deserved.
After that, Chelsea had the game where they wanted it. They soaked up persistent pressure from the home side in the second half before Cole's goal killed the game. The result ended Arsenal's 100 per cent home record in the Premiership and pushed them down to eighth place in the table. That is 20 points behind a Chelsea side, who not only enjoyed another ruthlessly efficient afternoon but celebrated their first League win at Highbury in 15 years.
Arsène Wenger made one change from the side that had lost to Newcastle eight days earlier. Gilberto's red card in that match saw him suspended, Mathieu Flamini stepped up into central midfield.
The start had hustle, bustle and muscle in equal measure. This was modern, cosmopolitan Premiership football at its purest. The flair and finesse was mostly foreign; the passion, pace and bitterly cold winter's afternoon were authentically British.
Chelsea had most of the pressure in the early stages but chances were a premium. The closest either side got in the first quarter-of-an-hour was when Frank Lampard curled in a free-kick from the left-hand byline and a backpedalling Jens Lehmann palmed the ball over the bar.
Ironically Arsenal had hauled themselves level, in term of territory and possession, by the time the visitors conjured up their best opportunity. In the 15th minute good work from William Gallas on the left flank allowed Cole to set up Michael Essien. The Ghanaian's low drive was fizzing goalward when Lauren got a grateful boot in the way.
Arsenal had been competitive but not cunning up to this point. But Henry was to change that in the 20th minute. Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fabregas sent the captain dancing through a couple of tackles before he stumbled a shot past Cech. Agonisingly it trickled towards the corner but bounced off the outside of the post. Worse was to come.
A minute later, Campbell won a thunderous challenge on the left and Ljungberg swept the ball to Van Persie, who joyously cracked a low shot past Cech. The assistant referee's flag halted the celebrations. Replays suggested it was Henry who had strayed offside. But it was arguable whether the striker was interfering with play.
Suddenly Arsenal were looking the more accomplished side, stretching and straining the Chelsea defence. However they could not spin those chances into goals. Tension threatened to boil over temporarily towards the end of the first half. But the match had returned to its passionate, pacy pattern by the time Robben fired Chelsea ahead six minutes before the break.
The goal came out of nowhere. Drogba spun just inside his open half and slid the ball into the Dutchman's path. He sprung the offside trap, raced into the area and slipped his shot past Jens Lehmann. A classic sucker-punch and less than Arsenal deserved on the basis of the first 45 minutes.
The pace did not drop when the teams re-emerged for the second half. Arsenal's urgency was obvious and Chelsea met fire with fire.
Again chances were slow in coming. But, 10 minutes in, the two teams exchanged opportunities from acute angles - Gallas' shot hit the sidenetting, Lauren popped up on the left to sting the hands of Cech.
On the hour, Robben escaped in identical fashion to his first-half goal. He seemed to have a yard on Senderos but the Swiss defender was dogged in his pursuit. Surprisingly the Dutchman cut the ball back in the hope of assistance and Lauren cleared the loose ball.
Six minutes later Robben again went clear. Unwisely, he ignored Drogba, was forced wide by three Arsenal defenders and produced only a tame shot.
Funnily enough these chances were actually the product of Arsenal pressure. The home side were pressing Chelsea deep in their own half and the visitors were using long balls to exploit the pace of their forwards. It was a classic counter-attacking ploy for a visiting side whose priority was to protect their narrow lead.
Arsenal responded by with a goalmouth scramble culminating in Henry's volley from distance. Again Cech held on.
Wenger threw on Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires for Hleb and Ljungberg. But the reaction came from Chelsea.
In the 72minute Cole robbed Lauren on the left and advanced towards goal assessing his options. By the time he had reached the edge of the area he had decided to go for goal. The choice was good and the finish was even better, beating Lehmann and finding the far corner.
But for the German keeper, it would have been 3-0 a minute later. Cole's shot was hit into the floor and bounced up awkward for Lehmann who thrust out his right hand to divert the ball around post for a corner.
Bergkamp came closest to bring Arsenal back into the game when, eight minutes from time, his low, curling shot sent Cech sprawling to his left to save. Pires also tested the Chelsea keeper.
Arsenal continued to probe and push until the final whistle but nothing could prevent them slipping to a third successive League defeat. That has not happened since March 1995 and never under Wenger.
Referee: Rob Styles
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