Lucky Arsenal? There were not many suggesting that at Highbury last night. Fortune may balance out across a season but over 90 minutes a twist of fate can seriously tilt the scales. So it was for Arsenal, whose dwindling title hopes were extinguished in a bitter tale of linesmen's flags and goal posts. Manchester United, too, may feel this marked the beginning of the end of the title race. They are now nine points behind Chelsea and barring an improbable implosion the champions will be celebrating back-to-back titles by the time United go to Stamford Bridge on 29 April.
For Arsenal, languishing in eighth, 20 points behind Chelsea and 11 behind United, the domestic League season is now reduced to a scramble for a Champions' League place and a period of deep introspection. This is the first time in a decade they have lost three successive Premiership matches and it is now six hours and 25 minutes since they scored a Premiership goal.
Robin van Persie may disagree. He believed he had scored a perfectly good "goal", indeed a very good one, 20 minutes into this then-goalless match. A linesman, wrongly, ruled otherwise. Eighteen minutes later another marginal decision went, correctly, in favour of Arjen Robben. He scored. Add the fact that Henry had already seen the ball hit the post and bounce out, while Robben and Joe Cole with the clinching second, scored in-off-the-post, and the "Lucky Arsenal" sobriquet should not just be laid to rest but entombed.
Not that Chelsea were unworthy winners. They controlled much of the game and might have won it in the opening 15 minutes. Claude Makelele returned to deliver another performance of quiet influence, Didier Drogba terrorised the Arsenal defence, Robben showed signs of regaining his best form, and the defence showed why it is now 11 hours and 29 minutes since they have conceded. Cole had another excellent match, defensively and offensively.
Such is the pressure Chelsea's growing hegemony places on opponents that Arsène Wenger made a rare change in formation, adopting a 4-3-3 system which sought to ape his opponents'. However, Freddie Ljungberg and Van Persie, Arsenal's wide men, were naturally inclined to move inside which made Arsenal even more narrow than usual. On occasion the full-backs got forward but too rarely - and when they did there were not enough strikers in the area.
While Arsenal felt their way into this unfamiliar approach Chelsea went for their throats. In the opening minute Frank Lampard intercepted a wayward pass from Alexander Hleb and chipped a cross to Drogba. He nodded the ball down to the unmarked Cole but he sliced his volley. Jens Lehmann was tested a minute later, the keeper palming Lampard's free-kick over the bar. The pressure continued with Drogba appealing for a penalty after Lehmann pulled his arm in the area and Lauren making a vital block from Essien's shot.
Arsenal needed a catalyst, a means of raising their game and lifting the siege. Lauren, then Henry provided it. First Lauren crunched into a challenge on Cole, leaving the England man complaining and Highbury roaring. Then came a more elegant statement of intent as Henry weaved through the Chelsea defence, neatly sidestepping John Terry, then steered a shot past Petr Cech, agonisingly against the outside of the post and away.
Chelsea were rattled, Arsenal resurgent. Campbell crashed into a tackle and the ball span to Ljungberg, who fed Van Persie. He drilled the ball inside Cech's near post and wheeled away to celebrate. A linesman's flag stopped him dead. Yet William Gallas, on the other flank, had played him onside. Perhaps the linesman has been confused by Henry, offside but not interfering with play under current guidelines.
Van Persie's anger grew as Essien escaped punishment for elbowing him as both jumped for a header. He was soon booked for dissent, the first of seven yellow cards. Justice, of sorts, caught up with Essien four minutes later after his wayward elbow felled Lauren. As Arsenal demanded a red card Chelsea accused Lauren of faking so strongly he had to be restrained by his physio, Gary Lewin.
Then Arsenal's concentration and luck slipped away. A throw-in fell to Drogba and, with Kolo Touré ball-watching, he released Robben. The flag stayed down and the ball went in off the post.
Arsenal did not go quietly into a twilight of domestic irrelevance but only Lauren and Henry tested Cech. From less possession Chelsea were more threatening. Robben twice broke but took the wrong decision, passing to Cole when he should have shot, shooting when he should have fed Drogba. Eventually Cole mugged a hesitating Lauren, dummied Campbell and beat Lehmann, off the post. Soon after he struck woodwork again, and the ball stayed out. Had Arsenal's luck changed, or were the fates, like the away support, laughing at them?
Goals: Robben (38) 0-1; Cole (72) 0-2.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Lehmann; Touré, Senderos, Campbell, Lauren; Fabregas, Flamini, Hleb (Pires, 69); Ljungberg (Bergkamp, 69), Henry, Van Persie (Owusu-Abeyie, 81). Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Eboue.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, Gallas; Makelele, Essien, Lampard; Cole, Drogba (Huth, 87), Robben (Geremi, 76). Substitutes not used: Crespo, Cudicini (gk), Gudjohnsen.
Referee: R Styles (Cheshire).
Booked: Arsenal Van Persie, Senderos, Henry. Chelsea Essien, Robben, Makelele, Lampard.
Man of the match: Cole.
Attendance: 38, 347.
Head-to-heads Where the battle of Highbury was won and lost
By Jason Burt
THIERRY HENRY v JOHN TERRY
The two captains. Henry was his side's greatest hope, Terry his team's greatest barrier. Henry almost struck the first blow after ghosting away from Terry to hit a post. Terry was not at his imperious best but his determination saw him through. A frustrated Henry was booked for tripping Ricardo Carvalho. AP
MATHIEU FLAMINI v FRANK LAMPARD
Handed a huge role and, despite his occasionally tidy, alert play, Flamini was exposed as the limited performer he is. Exchanged early tackles with Lampard, and also drew blood when he caught the England midfielder's head, but did not exert control. Lampard's defensive discipline was vital to Chelsea. REUTERS
PHILIPPE SENDEROS v DIDIER DROGBA
Scared and scarred by his previous meetings with the Chelsea striker, Senderos was a ponderous, nervous wreck. Drogba provided the pass for Arjen Robben's goal and once again proved an effective, if far from pretty, bludgeon in Chelsea's attack. EMPICSReuse content