Thank the football gods for Arsenal, eh? After an incredibly poor run of form at Stamford Bridge culminated in Chelsea somehow coughing up a 2-0 lead to Southampton on Wednesday, a home win was required no matter the opposition. Fortunately, fate conspired to lead the Gunners to SW6, and that meant three happy (and snowy) points for the Blues.
With Demba Ba starting against both Stoke City and Southampton, the stage was set for Fernando Torres to try to make his mark in a big match. More surprising, perhaps, was the inclusion of all three of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata for the second match in a row -- Oscar in particular had been out of favour under Benitez, and I wasn't expecting to see that trio again after the Southampton collapse.
This time, however, Hazard started on the right with Oscar on the left, a move that paid immediate dividends for the Blues. The latter had been virtually anonymous as a winger so far this season, but his move to the left paid immediate dividends, getting him involved in the game ahead of Ashley Cole. And on the opposite flank, Hazard was unplayable. Meanwhile, Arsenal were finding it almost impossible to get out of their own half.
For all that, it was the Gunners with the first genuine chance of the match. Olivier Giroud somehow found himself behind both Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic only to shoot wide with Petr Cech beaten. Oscar had already been denied what seemed like a fairly clear-cut penalty when Abou Diaby decided to rugby tackle him in the box with thirty seconds elapsed, but Martin Atkinson waved away Chelsea's appeals for a spot kick.
No matter. The referee ended up doing us a favour shortly thereafter when Ramires caught Frances Coquelin trying to burst into Chelsea's half. Despite the Brazilian sinking his studs into the top of Coquelin's foot, the foul went uncalled and the Blues could break at speed. Cesar Azpilicueta picked out Mata -- Bacary Sagna hadn't bothered tracking back -- with a lovely crossfield pass and two perfect touches later Wojciech Szczesny was picking the football out of his net.
Chelsea weren't done after one goal, and Arsenal were looking completely and utterly hopeless. They couldn't hold onto possession and on the rare instances they emerged from their own half the Gunners completely failed to prevent quick transitions through Hazard and Mata. As it turned out, the Blues ended up getting Atkinson's help again.
Mata threaded a neat pass to Ramires, who danced around Szczesny and fell down as the goalkeeper made a rather futile challenge for the ball. It's pretty easy to see that one as a dive -- Ramires was already heading groundward when Szczesny's arm made contact -- but the referee pointed straight to the spot. Bizarrely, he then opted to show yellow rather than red for what should, after the penalty was called, been a clear red card offence.
Frank Lampard was rather indifferent to the refereeing controversy, stepping up and slotting home for goal number 195 of his Chelsea career.
Still Arsenal neglected to do much of anything. Theo Walcott was lively but constantly offside, and the rest of the match was hilariously one-sided. With Wednesday's match in mind, however, Chelsea supporters would not have felt greedy in demanding another goal in order to feel completely comfortable.
Torres should have provided one just before the break after a free kick fell to him on the half volley only to see a bizarre effort fly off his ankle and into the stands. That chance proved to be the last of the half -- and the end of Chelsea's long spell of dominance.
After the restart, it looked like a completely different match. Arsenal had been tentative and toothless, unable to complete more than three passes without coughing up possession to a rampant Blues side. Now the roles were reversed.
A snap shot from Per Mertesacker miraculously found its way into Cech's arms barely two minutes into the second half. Then Walcott was denied after dancing into the box. Jack Wilshere was starting to come into the game by now, cruising past Ramires almost at will and pulling the strings as red shirts rushed forwards.
When the goal came, it was hardly a surprise. Torres miscontrolled the ball while backing into Thomas Vermaelen, and Arsenal pushed forwards at speed. Santi Carzola threaded an eye-of-the-needle pass to Walcott, and no linesman's flag was there to bail out Ivanovic and Cahill this time.
After 58 minutes of football, Chelsea led 2-1. It was a thoroughly uncomfortable lead, however -- whenever the visitors went on the attack the defence looked utterly flummoxed. Torres picked this opportunity to start getting back into the match, but despite a pair of brilliant runs, the striker managed to sabotage his own attempts on goal at the final moment.
The match called for substitutions to stabilise affairs, and Benitez opted to swap Oscar for Ryan Bertrand and deployed Ba in Torres' place. While Arsenal were still dominating possession, Chelsea were now looking dangerous on the counterattack* and nearly made it 3-1 when Ba rounded Szczesny only to see Vermaelen clear off the line.
*On one such counterattack, Wilshere attempted a cynical pullback on Ramires, and got an elbow to the face for his troubles. Atkinson seemed to think it was karma.
Most of the action, however, was coming at the other end of the pitch. The Gunners were desperate for a point -- a loss was going to see Chelsea open up an eleven point gap on their guests -- and surged forwards in numbers, putting Cech's goal virtually under siege as the match drew to a close.
Five minutes of injury time were marked with a cavalcade of Arsenal corners and some rather desperate last-ditch defending, the most impressive example of which was Cahill's vital intervention of Walcott just as the 23-year-old looked set to break Blue hearts. You could have cut the tension around Stamford Bridge with a knife.
Somehow, Chelsea muddled through. It wasn't pretty, but that doesn't make the result any less brilliant. Yes, the team needs to figure out how to hold possession and calm things down... but for now, let's just celebrate three vital points and a derby win against Arsenal.