By Nik Brumsack at Stamford Bridge
Kurt Zouma and Eden Hazard scored after the break to consign nine-man Arsenal to defeat at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
The game's turning point came towards the end of an even first half when Gabriel was sent off by referee Mike Dean after clashing with Diego Costa in the centre circle. The Chelsea forward should himself have been shown a red card moments before, catching Laurent Koscielny with a forearm to the face as the pair wrestled inside the Arsenal penalty area.
Zouma nodded in the opener soon after the restart and, though Arsenal continued to threaten on the counter, the game was effectively ended as a contest when Santi Cazorla was dismissed for his second bookable offence 11 minutes before the end.
Playing with nine men, the Gunners struggled to gain possession and were eventually killed off by Hazard’s deflected finish in the 90th minute.
This was a frustrating afternoon for Arsène Wenger’s men. They had matched their hosts for the entire first half but this game changed on Gabriel’s sending off. Whether the FA take retrospective action to punish Costa for the earlier incident involving Koscielny remains to be seen but even if they do, that won’t help Arsenal.
Still, there’s no time to wallow.
With another London derby on the horizon during this breathless juncture of the season, the Gunners must knuckle down and respond quickly at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night.
SETTING THE SCENE
Few will have been surprised to see Wenger make changes for Arsenal’s third match in the space of a week.
In total, there were six alternations from the team that lost in Zagreb on Wednesday night, with the boss reverting to the side that had beaten Stoke City last weekend.
The most notable of those saw Petr Cech return in goal. The keeper was making his first appearance at Stamford Bridge since swapping blue for red in the summer, and was given a hearty round of applause by both sets of fans when he began his pre-match warm-up.
At the other end of the pitch, Theo Walcott - who came into this game having scored five times against Chelsea - replaced Olivier Giroud as focal point of the attack. Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin returned to the midfield while Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin occupied the full-back slots.
Though Arsenal entered this match without a win on their last three visits to SW6, Wenger’s side arrived in south-west London six points ahead of their hosts. Jose Mourinho’s men had lost three times in their first five league matches - as many as they did when winning the title last season - accumulating their lowest points total after five games since 1988 in the process. That run of form saw the hosts occupy 17th position in the league table ahead of kick-off.
Chelsea were the only English team to win in the Champions League in midweek but their victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv came at a cost, with Willian ruled out for this fixture after suffering a hamstring injury against the Israeli outfit.
Former Gunner Cesc Fabregas began the game in central midfield but there was no place for John Terry, who took his place on the bench.
With Chelsea having conceded 12 times in their opening five games, some voices in the media had began to question the defensive capabilities of a side who shipped less goals than any other Premier League team last season.
Walcott tested that supposed vulnerability out early on, making a series of menacing runs in behind the hosts’ back four. He was played through by Bellerin after four minutes but, having rounded Begovic, could not keep the ball in play.
Arsenal’s start was purposeful but Chelsea threatened themselves as the half wore on, and both Pedro and Costa forced Cech to save from 20 yards.
Wenger had identified “better defensive focus of everybody and more defensive stability” as key reasons for his team’s improved record in the big domestic games.
Those qualities quickly became apparent here as the hosts upped the ante. Francis Coquelin snapped into a tackle, Gabriel knocked Eden Hazard off the ball and, at the other end, Mesut Ozil's pass picked out Walcott, whose shot was kept out by Asmir Begovic.
Half-time was rapidly approaching but the game sprang to life in the closing stages of the first period. It all started when Ozil embarked on a mazy run and found Ramsey at the back post. The Welshman dithered, electing not to shoot and Chelsea won the ball back as a result before springing forward at pace.
The play quickly switched to the other end and Pedro's powerful 20-yarder had to be batted away by Cech.
And then came the drama. Koscielny, defending a cross from the left, wrestled with Costa in the Arsenal penalty area and, having earlier being pushed in the face, went down following a chest bump from the striker. A melee broke out and after Mike Dean had seemingly calmed things down, Gabriel was sent off for kicking out at the Spain international on the halfway line. Replays showed that Costa should also have been red carded after catching Koscielny in the face with his forearm. As it was, the striker was booked.
Gabriel’s red card brought about a reshuffle at the break. Coquelin, having required treatment during the first half was the man to make way, with Calum Chambers filling in at centre half.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Arsenal forced the first opportunity of the second period, Alexis seeing his 20-yard free-kick hit the top of the wall before defecting behind.
Soon after, they were behind when Chelsea won a set-piece of their own midway inside the visitors’ half. Fabregas took it and picked out Zouma at the back post. The defender, totally unmarked, nodded home for a first Premier League goal. It was a frustrating goal to concede.
Chelsea sensed blood and were only denied a second by Cech, who parried Hazard’s fierce shot to safety.
Back came Arsenal. Ramsey floated a ball over the top and, after Zouma and Gary Cahil misjudged it, Alexis couldn’t get the purchase on his eventual shot. He should have done better.
The game was becoming stretched. Walcott flashed a shot off target at one end, Hazard dragged an effort wide at the other. Then Costa had appeals for a penalty waved away after going down under Bellerin's challenge.
Wenger introduced Giroud and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after 73 minutes as Arsenal chased an equaliser. The double change helped the Gunners to wrestle the impetus back and they quickly forced a couple of corners.
Their momentum was quashed soon after though, as Cazorla was shown his second yellow card for catching Fabregas deep inside the Chelsea half.
From then on in, the hosts largely kept possession. They made the game safe in the closing stages, Hazard’s shot taking a heavy deflection off Chambers to wrong-foot Cech.
To their credit, Arsenal continued to attack and they could have pulled one back when Ramsey’s stabbed effort in stoppage time was smothered by Begovic. It just hadn’t been their day.
Referee: Mike Dean
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