By Chris Harris at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal’s six-match winning streak at home was brought to an end as Chelsea capitalised on an early red card to inflict a rare defeat at the Emirates.
Per Mertesacker was dismissed for denying Diego Costa a goalscoring opportunity in the 17th minute, and the Chelsea striker rubbed salt in Arsenal’s wounds by opening the scoring six minutes later.
Arsenal had held their own in a frenetic opening to the game, but the odds were stacked against them with 10 men. Try as they might the Gunners could not find a precious equaliser - despite the welcome return of Alexis.
Defeat to the defending champions leaves Arsene Wenger’s title hopefuls three points adrift of leaders Leicester City and level on points with Manchester City.
Tottenham are a further two points adrift in this most compelling of Premier League campaigns, and Arsenal need to get back on track when they host Southampton on February 2.
SETTING THE SCENE
A win for Leicester and a draw for Man City left Arsenal in third place as they prepared to renew this London rivalry.
Only a victory would take the Gunners back to the top and they were boosted by the sight of Alexis’ name on the teamsheet - although he had to settle for a place on the bench alongside new signing Mohamed Elneny.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was also among the substitutes, making way for Mesut Ozil after he had sat out the draw at Stoke City.
There was a touch of class to admire just before kick-off, Theo Walcott taking the captain’s armband and leading the Arsenal side out to mark his 10th anniversary at the club.
It feels like everything goes up a notch in games like this. On the pitch there’s extra bite in the challenges, a bit more pace in the passing. Off the pitch the fans are fully committed too, and the noise at the Emirates reflected that.
Arsenal had the first sight of goal inside 90 seconds but Joel Campbell failed to connect with Walcott’s cross from the left.
Oscar tried to catch out Petr Cech at his near post as the visitors responded, but the former Chelsea keeper got down just in time to smuggle the ball behind.
Campbell linked up nicely with Olivier Giroud on the edge of the box and found Mathieu Flamini, but he slipped as he attempted to get a shot away on the turn.
It was end to end, blow for blow, the high-tempo encounter we’ve come to expect when these sides meet. And then - as at Stamford Bridge in September - an Arsenal red card transformed the game.
It went to Mertesacker after he slid in and brought down Costa 30 yards from goal, with no defensive cover behind him. Referee Mark Clattenburg reached into his top pocket, off went Mertesacker, and Wenger sacrificed Giroud to bring on Gabriel.
Arsenal would have to play 73 minutes with 10 men, and worse was to follow. Costa failed to connect with a left-wing cross but the ball reached Branislav Ivanovic and Costa darted to the near post to convert his right-wing delivery.
Chelsea pushed on in search of a killer goal but, to their credit, Arsenal pushed back.
Walcott made two clever runs inside his full-back, but was ruled marginally offside both times. And the flag went up again when Flamini ghosted into the box to flick Ramsey’s cross over the bar.
It was an encouraging sign that Arsenal could still hurt Chelsea with 10 men.
Willian fired the first shot of the second half but a pattern soon emerged - Arsenal working hard to find gaps in behind an organised Chelsea rearguard, the Blues looking to break up play and pounce on the counter-attack.
Ozil almost picked out a darting run from Walcott but, with space hard to come by, Wenger brought on his potential trump card.
Alexis, out of action since the Norwich game in November, replaced Campbell to a huge ovation. Nemanja Matic gave Alexis a personal welcome with a challenge that earned a booking.
One almighty scramble almost did the trick for Arsenal. Ozil’s free-kick was overhit but struck Azpilicueta on the back and ricocheted around the box as Alexis missed his kick and Gabriel’s shot was blocked.
Cess Fabregas tested Cech as the game entered its final 20 minutes and Wenger brought on Oxlade-Chamberlain for Walcott to inject some fresh legs into his fatigued side.
You could not fault Arsenal’s effort and, with Ozil prompting and Alexis buzzing around on the edge of the box, there was always a chance they could conjure up a moment of magic to rescue a point.
Thibault Courtois flapped at a corner only for the loose ball to be hacked clear. Then Oxlade-Chamberlain failed to connect with a difficult chance and Flamini’s flick was saved by Courtois.
It was all Arsenal could muster; the points were Chelsea’s.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
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