There is a first time for everything but not, it seems, for Chelsea to win a Premiership match at Highbury. In a game high in quality and intensity they would happily have settled for a draw, leaving Manchester United as League leaders, but were undone by a ghastly howler from their goalkeeper, Carlo Cudicini, 15 minutes from the end.
Claudio Ranieri's team had begun the day on top of the table for the first time since January 1999, when Arsenal knocked them off it at the same venue with Dennis Bergkamp's goal. This time United stole to the front of the three-horse race with their early victory at Elland Road, only to be undone, like Chelsea, by Thierry Henry's comical winning goal, giving Arsenal the lead by a point.
Understandably, they are a more cohesive unit than the west Londoners, who had nevertheless remained undefeated domestically by dint of individual quality. Ranieri candidly admittedly after the game: "We aren't a team like Manchester or Arsenal. That's the little problem. How long will it take? I don't know. We need time."
For all Mr Abramovich's money and all their supporters' jibes at Arsenal yesterday - along the lines of "Shall we buy a ground for you?"- the new squad was actually stretched for the first time by injuries to three central defenders. When John Terry joined Marcel Desailly and William Gallas among the absentees, it was necessary to pair Mario Melchiot with the strapping German youngster Robert Huth. They coped tolerably well with Henry's pace, but Terry's influence was still missed.
If the midfield diamond, with Damien Duff restored at its apex in place of Joe Cole, functioned well for much of the time, the great disappointment was Adrian Mutu, the Romanian striker withdrawn as soon as the Tinkerman could resist tinkering no longer in the second half. Ironically, Ranieri's third and final change might have avoided defeat: he was prevented from sending on Mario Stanic in the 74th minute by Bergkamp's quick free-kick that led to the winning goal. The Dutchman, fouled on the halfway line by Geremi, immediately sent Robert Pires away down the right for a low centre that Cudicini should have gathered comfortably. As he committed the cardinal sin of taking his eye off the ball, it bounced out of his arms, on to Henry's knee and over the line.
There was more to commend the first two goals, which gave a vibrant afternoon such a rocking start. Arsenal had already threatened with a dangerous cross by Sylvain Wiltord that Henry miskicked before, in the fifth minute, they scored. Chelsea's young full-back Glen Johnson, moving across to shadow Pires, needlessly handled to concede a free-kick 25 yards out and just wide of the goal. Although it looked perfect for Henry, Edu - who scored from a similar position in the FA Cup at Old Trafford last season - was given the honour and hit the net for the first time since then. Once again there was a significant deflection, this time off one of his own players, Ray Parlour.
It was also the Brazilian's first League goal for a year, but there was little time to enjoy it. His team were soon pressed back and Geremi fed Hernan Crespo for a wonderful 25-yarder into the top corner of the net. Arsenal's goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, who could do nothing whatever about stopping it, protested in vain that Crespo had moved back from an offside position.
It required some solid defending, and good handling by the goalkeepers, to prevent further scoring over the next hour of absorbing entertainment. If the game lacked anything, it was clear-cut chances, a fault quickly remedied after the interval. The first fell to Chelsea, Crespo not managing to capitalise on negligent marking as Johnson centered from the left following a corner. There followed a long period of home pressure, in which Cudicini cleanly held low drives from Pires (twice) and Gilberto Silva. Henry was guilty of a bad miss, though, his rarely seen heading betraying him as Lauren's cross dropped between Melchiot and Huth.
Ranieri had, for once, refrained from half-time changes and it was his opposite number, Arsène Wenger, who decided to shake things up, replacing Parlour and Wiltord with Bergkamp and Nwankwo Kanu. The Tinkerman responded immediately by sending on Jesper Gronkjaer for Mutu and Cole for Duff.
Arsenal benefited most from the new injection, as their manager had intended. "We wanted a bit more offensive pressure, because we needed the three points," he said. "Second half we were in their half and created more chances."
Edu, flourishing in the absence of the suspended Patrick Vieira, set up Henry, who was thwarted by Cudicini's superb block, Kanu heading the resultant corner against the post. But having saved his team again, the goalkeeper let them down most horribly with quarter of an hour to play. It was hardly a goal worthy of winning such a game, but curiously nobody in the home ranks seemed to mind.
They remain unbeaten by Chelsea on their own ground for 13 years, or anywhere at all since 1995, a run now encompassing 16 League games. The date that looms largest among true Blues, of course, is 1955 and the last League championship. Those who expected 2004 to be the year of a new coronation need not yet despair, but have to accept that titles are won by teams, not just collections of expensive individuals.
Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1
Edu 5, Henry 75; Crespo 8
Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 38,172