Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1
In a season riddled with surprises, old certainties returned at the Emirates Stadium as Arsenal and Chelsea reverted to their old, familiar selves.
For Chelsea, victory was born of defiance and their unerring ability to bring out the worst in Arsene Wenger’s side, producing a display that was positively Mourinho-esque and harked backed to last season’s title success.
By contrast, Wenger’s side appeared suddenly unable to draw on the qualities that had made them such compelling contenders to be crowned champions for the first time in 12 years.
And instead of reclaiming their position at the head of the Premier League table, the Gunners lie third, three points adrift of Leicester City, and forced to face fresh questions about their ability to stay the course.
There was an inevitability, then, to the outcome once Diego Costa — revelling once again in being the focus of controversy in this fixture — had drawn a foolish, ill-judged trip from Per Mertesacker in the 18th minute.
Wenger believed the decision was “harsh” but he was in the minority and reduced to 10 men Arsenal’s hopes of winning the game were effectively extinguished six minutes later when the Chelsea forward met Branislav Ivanovic’s cross at the near post.
Lacking in composure, Wenger’s side fell short in the way they always seem to do against Chelsea.
Arsenal have now failed to beat the Stamford Bridge club in nine league games, a run dating back to 2011.
Worse, they have failed to score in the last six league encounters and by the time their last, desperate efforts to equalise had come to nothing, the consequences were clear.
For Chelsea, this performance offered further confirmation of the progress they have made since Mourinho was dismissed before Christmas.
They are now unbeaten in eight games since the departure of the Portuguese, seven of those with interim manager Guus Hiddink at the helm although they remain in the bottom half of the table, closer to the relegation zone than the top four.
The 14-point gap to fourth spot will almost certainly prove too big to close, but with the Champions League and FA Cup still to play for, the campaign is far from over.
Hiddink’s success has been in bringing those players who under-performed so badly under Mourinho back to form. Costa, in particular, has been transformed, scoring six goals in six games under the Dutchman and again terrorising the Arsenal defence before limping off to provide the only downside to Chelsea’s day.
“It was a little bit on the knee, but I don’t know if that was serious or not,” said Hiddink.
Cesc Fabregas was also outstanding and, by the midfielder’s own admission, produced his best performance.
Hiddink, though, played down his impact.
“What have I done? Not much,” he said.
“Working every day. Some conversations in training and outside of training.
“You must not think this is a big issue, but I tried to focus them on what they are good at. They focused very well, not just in this game but others.”
The outcome may well have been different if Mertesacker had not been caught out for pace by Costa. Wenger was unhappy, but even his complaints about the incident lacked conviction.
“I thought it was harsh and we had to cope with it,” said the manager.
“I said Costa got two of our players sent off in the last two games against Chelsea. Those are only facts.
“Is the decision right or wrong? I don’t know. That is a fact, without accusing him of anything.”
More contentious was Wenger’s decision to sacrifice Olivier Giroud after being forced to reshape his side and introduce Gabriel to restore his back four.
The decision was met with boos from the home supporters and Theo Walcott’s ineffectual performance as the main striker added to the dissatisfaction.
“Do you want to make a poll for every decision to see who does what?” Wenger said.
“I made the decision and, for me, it was quite a normal decision. We knew we had to drop deeper and to use pace to get forward.”
Chelsea remained largely in control although Arsenal created enough chances to have equalised before the break, particularly when Mathieu Flamini volleyed over from close range.
The second-half followed a similar patter, with Arsenal lacking conviction in front of goal despite an uncharacteristically shaky performance by Thibaut Courtois, the Chelsea goalkeeper.
“I like the team playing how they did today, regardless of the gap between here and fourth place,” said Hiddink. “We still have two cups at stake.
“We were unbeaten in seven before this but it was not satisfying because a lot were draws.
“I hope we have made the first step to being unbeaten with pride.”
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Cech 8; Bellerin 7, Mertesacker 4, Koscielny 5, Monreal 6; Ramsey 6, Flamini 4; Campbell 5 (Sanchez 57,7), Ozil 7, Walcott 5 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 75,6); Giroud 6 (Gabriel 22,5).
Subs not used: Ospina, Gibbs, Chambers, Elneny.
CHELSEA (4-2-3-1): Courtois 5; Ivanovic 5, Zouma 7, Terry 7, Apilicueta 7; Mikel 7, Matic 6; Willian 7, Fabregas 9, Oscar 7 (Hazard 76,6); Costa 8 (Remy 58,6).
Subs not used: Begovic, Rahman, Traore, Cahill, Loftus-Cheek.
Referee: M Clattenburg 8
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