The Blues fell to our first away league defeat since Wolves at the start of December with the damage in this derby done in the first half.
We improved after the interval but it was a poor first 45 minutes against an Arsenal side strong at home this season. On top from the start and stretching our defence when they advanced, the north Londoners scored through Alexandre Lacazette early on and then pressed home their advantage when their skipper Laurent Koscielny diverted the ball in with half-time approaching.
Marcos Alonso heading against the post just before the end of the opening half heralded a better Blues in the second 45 minutes but we could not turn possession or position into shots on target
In his press conference yesterday, Maurizio Sarri hinted at an unchanged attack with Eden Hazard continuing in the central role when he spoke of needing balance to cope with Arsenal’s attacking play. The boss had previously explained having the Belgian in the centre brings that to the team’s defensive set-up and all 11 players who had started last weekend’s win over Newcastle were selected today.
With the Blues starting the day six points ahead of the Gunners, there was plenty at stake in this Saturday tea-time encounter which followed a rare clear midweek for both sides. Another three points to match our home win against them back in August would have given the north Londoners much to do to overtake us by the end of the season. Yesterday, Arsenal manager Unai Emery admitted as much, even going as far as to say a nine-point gap might be insurmountable. His side responded to that warning.
The Spaniard made three changes to the Gunners side for this game with Hector Bellerin, Lucas Torreira and Aaron Ramsey coming in for a reversion to the 4-diamond-2 favoured by them earlier in the season.
As the teams walked out, in the corner hosting the Chelsea supporters, banners were held aloft declaring ‘Thank You Petr – Chelsea Legend’ in honour of our former keeper who announced his impending retirement earlier in the week. Big Pete was on the Arsenal bench.
The home side started strongly, and looked certain score in the fifth minute when Alexandre Lacazette got in behind Marcos Alonso and crossed low to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but the league’s joint-topscorer at the start of the weekend scuffed wide. Then centre-back Sokratis headed a corner wide from close range having beaten Mateo Kovacic to the ball.
In the 10th minute Chelsea at last broke out, and Hazard met a low Cesar Azpilicueta cross first time but was off-target. He was annoyed to have not worked the keeper at least.
We were however conceding too many set-pieces at our end of the pitch and from a free-kick, Kepa superbly saved with his chest from Koscielny’s point-blank range header. It was only a short stay of execution. The corner was worked in low to Lacazette who turned and found just enough space on the outside of Alonso to fire in from a tight angle. It was a good goal. There were less than 15 minutes played.
It was Kepa to the rescue again soon after when Aubameyang nicked the ball of Azpi and charged away for a clear shot on goal, but then the Blues had a difficult chance to level through the combination which had opened the scoring against Newcastle last week – a David Luiz long pass to Pedro. This time the Spaniard’s lob went wide. It was his first real involvement in the game.
Aubameyang, with an acrobatic effort, went close to making it 2-0 on 36 minutes but two minutes later our net was found again. As for the first goal, it started with a set-piece on our left, this time played across the penalty and then sent back into our goalmouth. There was a degree of good fortune for Koscielny with the way he diverted it into the goal with his shoulder, yet there were five Chelsea players near him, and none had managed to cut out the supply line.
Two goals down and since the Pedro effort we had shown little in attack bar the odd long shot over the bar or a run into the area which did not produce the final pass, but on the stroke of the interval Alonso hit the post with a good headed effort from Willian’s corner. Earlier in the day the left-back had bemoaned his misfortune in striking the woodwork multiple times this season, and unfortunately that run continues.
It was better from Chelsea at the start of the second half, but could we fashion a clear-cut chance? When Willian attempted another of his curlers in the manner of his Newcastle winner, it hit one of his team-mates.
Ten minutes in, the Brazilian pulled a ball back to Pedro on the edge of the area but frustratingly, the Spaniard skied it. Plenty of possession in the Arsenal half continued but it needed some strong Chelsea defending to keep Arsenal out when they began to launch counter-attacks as the last half-hour of the game commenced.
Substitute Ross Barkley flattened Koscielny with a powerfully struck shot from the edge of the area and as the minutes ticked away, Hazard squared the ball across the goalmouth to no avail. He then embarked on a twisting run before shooting over.
There was the odd moment of hope before the end, but the finishing touch was not there today. It is likely to need a sharper display from Sarri’s side if we are going overcome the single-goal semi-final deficit when we host Tottenham in the second leg on Thursday night.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Rudiger, David Luiz, Alonso; Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic (Barkley 63); Pedro (Hudson-Odoi 80), Hazard, Willian (Giroud 67).
Unused subs Caballero, Christensen, Emerson, Ampadu.
Booked David Luiz 37, Barkley 90+5
Arsenal (4-1-2-1-2): Leno; Bellerin (Elneny 72), Sokratis, Koscielny (c), Kolasinac; Xhaka, Torreira, Guendouzi; Ramsey (Maitland-Niles 67); Lacazette (Iwobi 67), Aubameyang.
Unused subs Cech, Mustafi, Monreal, Ozil.
Scorers Lacazette 14, Koscielny 39
Referee Anthony Taylor