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[pause for breath]
...hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahahaha.
Several months ago, Arsenal did the unimaginable. They beat us. Not only did they beat us, they did so comprehensively, humiliating Chelsea so emphatically that it was an open question whether Antonio Conte and several of his players would go into hiding for the rest of the season.
It turned out, of course, that the Blues would use that reverse to spark a ridiculous winning run and hefty lead atop the Premier League table, but the ache from losing 3-0 at the Emirates could only be soothed by one thing: revenge.
It seemed like a good time to get it. With Granit Xhaka suspended, Jack Wilshere on loan, Santi Cazorla injured, Aaron Ramsey injured and Mohamed Elneny injured and on international duty, the Gunners had one fit central midfielder in Francis Coquelin (who is awful) and had to pair him with their third-choice goalkeeper. Kickoff saw Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante rightly salivating at the chance to get at the visitors’ underbelly, and much of the story of Chelsea’s eventual 3-1 win was written with that lopsided matchup alone.
Arsenal supporters will probably suggest that had they taken their chances and Thibaut Courtois not made some impressive stops, they might have been in the match. This might be true, but a wider perspective might suggest that the Gunners spent most of the match being dismantled and if not for some slack Chelsea play in the final third might have lost by significantly more.
They started brightly enough, pressing the Blues’ defensive line hard. Chelsea’s insistence on playing out of the back represents a clear opening for opponents to hit, and Arsenal did their best to harass and harry, causing a few scares but failing to do any real damage. That initial enthusiasm soon dampened, however, and it wasn’t long until Marcos Alonso stamped the match with its real pattern.
Stamped? Well, elbowed. Definitely elbowed. The goal was a masterpiece of wide play and directed aggression. Victor Moses and Pedro undressed Arsenal down the right, drawing Laurent Koscielny out in a hopeless attempt to stop the cross. That left Hector Bellerin marking Diego Costa when Pedro’s delivery did come in, which went unsurprisingly badly. Costa rose, struck the ball cleanly, beat Petr Cech but saw his header crash back off the bar.
Alonso was first to react. He’d already sidled his way into the Arsenal box after realising that Bellerin had been drawn off the flank, and he was in perfect position to dash in and pounce on the rebound. Cech was completely helpless, and although Bellerin did his best to block off Alonso’s header, he found himself laid out on the ground as the ball kissed the back of the net.
Was it a foul? Probably, yes. Elbows to the head are generally fouls, and although this was of the more benign variety it still left Bellerin in a rather grim heap and Arsenal in need of a substitution. Do I care? Absolutely not. In the first place, Martin Atkinson was totally unsighted. And in the second it was extremely funny (ed. note: the goal, not the concussion).
Gabriel came on for Bellerin, which turned the Arsenal right from a potential source of threat to a guaranteed one of comedy. With Bellerin’s pace, Eden Hazard needed to be constantly alert and supporting Alonso. With Gabriel’s ... whatever Gabriel has, the Belgian was able to focus on the counterattack.
There were lots of those. Neither Coquelin nor Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were remotely capable of dealing with Chelsea’s midfielders once they’d decided they were bored of letting Arsenal have the ball, and barring the goals, the enduring image of the match will be the Chelsea front three baring down at speed on a terrified Gunners defence.
Unfortunately, those counterattacks were mostly crap. The Blues were regularly a fairly routine pass away from going clean through on goal, and they managed to connect with none of them. There was a bright moment or two despite the woeful performance on the break — seeing Shkodran Mustafi’s attempt at a tackle against Hazard in full flow was particularly hilarious -- but the failure to punish the visitors for their various sins kept them in the match for far too long.
Had Arsenal been more clinical, Chelsea might have paid a heavy price for their mistakes. There were certainly chances for them to grab an equaliser before halftime, and both Courtois and Conte must have been furious with the defensive breakdowns that let both Gabriel and Mesut Ozil steal in for chances. But Courtois was more than equal to both shots, wristing away a bullet header for the first and gratefully gathering Ozil’s scuffed shot during stoppage time. The Blues were dominant and ahead on the scoresheet, but there were signs that they were not quite invulnerable.
It was a good time for Chelsea’s counterattack to come to life. Not that they solved the problem with their passing. Instead, Hazard decided to ignore the whole conceit of passing altogether, taking a page out of the 19th century with a remarkable solo goal.
As ever, the Blues sprang a trap in midfield, forcing Arsenal off the ball and leaving the visitors’ defence exposed. Hazard was actually the one who made the interception in the first place, setting up David Luiz for a chip forward and then following the ball up the pitch. Costa’s flick found him on the centre spot, and Hazard didn’t stop running until the goal.
Koscielny was his first obstacle, circumvented with minimal trouble with a straightforward shimmy. Coquelin proved a more difficult opponent, although through tenacity rather than skill. The 25-year-old made every attempt to bring Hazard down over six or seven paces, but ended up ragdolling off the little man and looking all the world like he’d encountered a bug in the universe’s physics engine.
Hazard’s path to the box was now straightforward, but there were no blue shirts in sight and two defenders ahead of him. He had little chance but to take them on, and side so, catching Koscielny half-turned and using him to take Mustafi out of the play too. Cech was left helpless by the bouncing finish, and Arsenal were ended as a significant footballing force 53 minutes in.
Arsene Wenger, sitting in the stands as part of a four-match touchline ban, tried to recover the situation with his substitutes, throwing on Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck and dropping Alex Iwobi into central midfield. Despite Giroud’s late consolation and Welbeck forcing a fine stop with the match 2-0, it quite clearly didn’t work. Chelsea were soaking up everything their guests could throw their way and paying it back in spades, and although it took a Cech mistake to extend the lead there was never any doubt as to the final outcome.
That Cech’s error, which came off an Arsenal throw-in, benefitted Cesc Fabregas, only made it more delicious. Having been presented with a bouncing ball and under serious pressure from Costa, Cech could only clear limply to his former teammate, who took a touch before launching a chip straight at the goal camera. 3-0 Chelsea.
It might have been four — the mistakes were coming thick and fast — if Costa hadn’t been so keen to grab a goal of his own, but three was plenty. We were even treated to a rare appearance from Kurt Zouma, his first in the Premier League since that awful injury early last year. That it was the young defender who missed his man for Giroud’s consolation couldn’t take the joy out of the occasion, nor did that last-gasp strike prevent Stamford Bridge from celebrating a superbly-executed act of revenge.