Arsenal’s reputation as a team which visibly winces and shrinks in the face of open aggression has been challenged recently; but Diego Costa put it right back on the table at the Emirates.
Costa, just as he was at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, was the epitome of everything that Arsenal, for some reason, just cannot deal with: which is raw, naked power and a desire to win at all costs.
Having just earned a battling draw at Stoke, another of Arsenal’s bogey teams, Arsene Wenger was bold enough to talk in his programme notes about a ‘special solidarity’ in his new-look team, while Alexis Sanchez suggested pre-match that there could be no doubt that Arsenal are serious title contenders this time.
Both those assertions are under the microscope yet again after another defeat against a Chelsea side who have often triggered Arsenal’s downfall.
Per Mertesacker’s red card, for a woeful challenge on Costa after he was beaten for strength and pace by the Chelsea striker, came as no surprise to anyone who has studied the history of this fixture; even those who hoped the ‘new’ Arsenal would have the mental grit to end their hoodoo.
It was the seventh time an Arsenal man had been sent off against their London rivals in the Premier League, more than against any other opponent, and that’s no co-incidence.
Chelsea have the ability, and the desire, to get right under Arsenal’s skin — and they did it again.
The fact that Costa, blamed for getting Gabriel sent off in the fixture at Stamford Bridge and subsequently banned by the Football Association for his aggressive and provocative play, rubbed salt in the wound by scoring the winner made it all the more unbearable for those in red.
The sight of the Spanish international limping off later, his hamstring gone yet again following a challenge on Laurent Koscielny, gave home fans a chance to mock their pantomime villain; but he had already done his dirty work and left with a wry smile on his face, knowing he had already done enough to win Chelsea the game and put a dampener on Arsenal’s title challenge.
So just why is it Arsenal have such a psychological block when it comes to facing a team that has hurt them so many times in the past?
It’s a well-known stat that Wenger has never beaten Jose Mourinho but in fact his team have won just once against Chelsea at home since 2007 — a 3-1 victory in 2010 his solitary success.
So often it has been the centre-forward who has done the damage, too. Didier Drogba’s record against the Gunners was remarkable — 15 goals in 16 games — so perhaps the fault lies in the centre of Arsenal’s defence where they have never quite replicated the partnership of Adams and Keown and where Mertesacker’s lack of pace and brittleness has always been an issue.
Certainly, Arsenal didn’t possess the same threat up front which Costa provided — they took their own centre-forward Olivier Giroud off as soon as Mertesacker went.
The decision baffled and frustrated the home crowd in equal measure and, with hindsight, failed to have the impact Wenger wished for.
But there’s something, too, about Chelsea’s mental steel, their physical aggression and willingness to abandon principles in favour of results which simply makes Arsenal players incapable of maintaining their own mental concentration, so distracted are they by their frustration and antipathy for the opposition.
The Chelsea hoodoo has struck again and left a big dent in Arsenal’s title challenge.
It’s too much to say this result ends their hopes of a first championship since 2004 — how could it possibly do so in this ridiculous season in which Leicester sit top of the table and Chelsea have been battling relegation — but eight points from the last 18 is not title form and the psychological damage of this result is significant.
The way Arsenal’s players trudged off the field, Koscielny having to be helped to his feet after falling in despair to the floor, hinted at long-term consequences for Wenger’s side, not to mention another batch of accusations about the team’s soft underbelly.
Chelsea, by contrast, are slowly but surely building up strength.
Six points taken from Arsenal, unbeaten in nine Premier League games and the top half of the table finally in sight — meaning Guus Hiddink’s mission is becoming a little easier.
And although their dreams of Champions League football may have long gone the prospect of a late surge gives fans something to hold onto.
The only shame for Chelsea is they cannot face Arsenal again.
The only relief for Wenger is that with Chelsea and Stoke over and done with the bogey men have at least gone away — for now.
With Leicester, Barcelona and Manchester United awaiting in February, however, Arsenal’s season is in the balance.
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