Last time Chelsea played Arsenal, Diego Costa was the underhanded star of the show. The striker used every dark art in his possession to secure victory back in October, and although he copped a three-match ban for his antics, the demolition job he did on Gabriel's dignity will live long in the annals of derby history.
This time there wasn't much underhandedness required. Just like at Stamford Bridge, Costa managed to earn a red card for an Arsenal defender. This time, however, he did so by entirely legal means, and then added the winning goal for good measure. Yes, that's 'winning' -- Chelsea earned a 1-0 victory at the Emirates, giving the Blues their first two-win month of the season. That's a depressing statistic for an exciting day, so let's not linger on it any further.
Instead, the game! Normally, one might expect that taking three points from Arsenal on their own turf would require an exceptional performance. After all, it's been more than three years since Chelsea won there (Roberto di Matteo was in charge, Fernando Torres, Gervinho and Juan Mata the scorers), and this squad is playing several notches below its predecessors. But today we didn't get an excellent performance. The Blues were fine -- perhaps a little below fine, in fact -- but won anyway, and in surprisingly comfortable fashion.
Consider this: Arsenal's chances to equalise after going down 1-0 came from a) A Mathieu Flamini kung-fu volley, b) Thibaut Courtois failing to catch a free kick*, c) A Mathieu Flamini tumbling backheel and d) Thibaut Courtois failing to catch a free kick because he was being fouled. Down to 10 men or no, that's a fairly listless performance against a Chelsea squad that's been hemorrhaging goals against far less potent attacking groups.
Even before the red card, there didn't seem to be much in this Arsenal side. Aaron Ramsey spent the first 20 minutes helpfully guiding the ball out of play, Flamini didn't appear to be particularly inclined to stay in the one position that he needed to be and Per Mertesacker did a pleasing imitation of a particularly clumsy donkey whenever the ball came near him.
Cesc Fabregas took advantage of the space the Gunners midfield so generously afforded him, looking livelier than he has in months with some penetrating running and clever passes. Perhaps returning to his old stamping grounds energised him; more likely it was not being marked in any way, shape or form that did the trick. Either way, his airy forays forward stood in marked contrast to most of what we've seen from him this season.
But it wasn't the Gunners' old captain who struck the first blow. Instead it was Willian. His passing radar had been slightly off-kilter for the opening spell, but he managed to get it just right 17 minutes in. Leading Chelsea's breakout after an Arsenal attack had smashed itself hopelessly against a Blue wall, Willian saw Costa peel left of Mertesacker and delivered a jaw-dropping ball between the centre backs. Costa was free. And then he suddenly wasn't.
The striker had been brought to earth by a challenge so clumsy it very nearly failed to earn Mertesacker his marching orders. The German's flailing leg missed Costa's lead foot, but clipped his back one mid-stride, sending him tumbling to the ground. Laurent Koscielny was in no position to cover what would surely have been a one on one against Petr Cech, and so Mark Clattenburg had little choice but to reduce Arsenal to 10.
Arsene Wenger was forced into a reshuffle, and decided to withdraw Olivier Giroud in favour of Gabriel, apparently trying to bar Chelsea's route to goal and hit them on the counterattack. It's safe to say that that didn't work out, because within minutes of Giroud's withdrawal, the Blues were ahead.
Cesar Azpilicueta and Nemanja Matic combined to put in a not-very good cross from the Chelsea left, which despite attempts from both Costa and Koscielny squirted through everyone to reach Branislav Ivanovic on the right wing. With Nacho Monreal closing him down, Ivanovic didn't have time to think (perhaps this helped?), firing a teasing ball into the six-yard box that left Cech helpless and Arsenal's defenders hoping nobody was nearby. Unfortunately for them, Costa was nearby, and helped himself to an easy goal.
Arsenal now had to attack without a centre forward, and their speedsters on the wings didn't seem to have much clue as to how to damage Chelsea. With no focal point to worry about, the Blues seemed content enough to cede the flanks whenever the hosts did come forward (in the first half, not often), and it's somewhat telling that the only truly dangerous moment the defence encountered came when Flamini got between Kurt Zouma and John Terry and Bruce Lee'd a looping cross over the bar.
At halftime it was clear the opportunity was there to hand Arsenal an utter pasting. Looking at the scoreline, you'd have to say that the Blues failed to take it, but in truth they were extremely close to blowing it open. Nine minutes after the break, Fabregas, still the driving force behind the Chelsea attack, left Flamini sprawled on the ground, powered into the box and was wiped out by a Koscielny charge. It was certainly a penalty and, if Clattenburg hadn't been grading the hosts on an 'I'm sorry you're all idiots scale', would have been Koscielny's second booking. Alas, no penalty was forthcoming, and any impending romp lost its momentum.
Instead, Arsenal pushed forward. But without Giroud, they simply couldn't do anything. Their only shot on target came via Flamini, who took a miskick from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and attempted an audacious backheel which totally failed to work, leaving Thibaut Courtois with an easy catch.
It was actually Courtois who seemed to be Chelsea's biggest problem. His distribution was frankly depressing all match, but in the second half his apparent inability to catch and secure the ball on set pieces (remember that this was one of his greatest strengths at Atlético Madrid and in the first spell of last season) very nearly proved fatal. A dropped free kick turned into a mad scramble that was only cleared via a strong block from Zouma, and another one could have led to some rather unhappy moments had the loose ball not been dealt with decisively.
There were some scary moments, especially after Alexis Sanchez made an appearance just before the hour mark, but despite occasionally sustained pressure, Arsenal simply couldn't get anyone in front of goal with the ball. Their best spell actually came when Eden Hazard made his return from injury and Chelsea's master plan became 'lump long balls in his direction', which might worked had Hazard been in a racecar but only served to give the ball back since he wasn't.
Eventually the danger was seen out and the counterattacks could begin. Unfortunately, they didn't go very well. Diego Costa had spent much of the second half joyously exploring the definition of the offside rule, and Loïc Rémy followed in the scorer's footsteps after he departed with what looked like a hamstring injury. And although Hazard did put a spark into the match as the game died down, his final ball was either bad (Rémy, twice) or totally botched (Willian).
Chelsea didn't need to score again to win, so Guus Hiddink and friends were perfectly fine to burn through five minutes of added time without finding the net. Indeed, so was Hazard -- full time found him wandering around near the corner flag, daring Arsenal to come try to take the ball away. Arsenal couldn't, and Arsenal didn't.