We head to north London in a fortnight’s time with this Carabao Cup semi finely poised after the first leg yielded a second successive scoreless draw for the Blues.
In the second half especially we pegged the Gunners back and drew saves from David Ospina, as we had done in the first half when the Colombian kept out two Victor Moses strikes. Andreas Christensen, fresh from signing a new contract yesterday, had chances with two headers after the break while at the other end, Thibaut Courtois was not called upon nearly to the degree he was in our first game of 2018 at the Emirates, although he did make one quality first-half stop from an Alex Iwobi shot.
Antonio Conte indicated he would go strong with his team selection on the eve of this game and he was true to his word. In fact there were only two changes from the side which had begun the meeting between these sides in north London seven days earlier. They were Danny Drinkwater in for Tiemoue Bakayoko in midfield, and Toni Rudiger replacing Gary Cahill at the back.
Arsene Wenger, who watched the game from the press seating as he served the second of a three-match touchline ban, went one change further – with Ospina rather than Petr Cech in goal and as the attackers flanking centre-forward Alexandre Lacazette, Iwobi and Danny Welbeck were fielded instead of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
Back up front for the Blues having either been unavailable or a late substitute in the FA Cup outing at Norwich on Saturday were Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata, and the two combined inside the first two minutes for the first attack, which ended with Morata finding the sidenetting from a tight angle.
With this the first of two games to decide which of us would be off to Wembley in late February, the odds were always against this being as open an affair as the away league meeting, and despite that early flourish tonight, it proved to be the case as two well-organised sides locked horns.
Moses caught a deeply delivered Hazard corner well and sent it goalwards early on but there were too many bodies in the way for it have found a way through. In truth, it was a scrappy if keenly contested opening quarter-of-an-hour.
Cesc Fabregas, so impressive at the Emirates seven days ago, tried to get something going for the Blues with a long, high pass into the area for Morata to contest, but Arsenal had plenty of bodies at the back.
The Chelsea defence had been hurried on occasions rather than troubled in the opening stages but N’Golo Kante did concede a 19th-minute free-kick within shooting range, which was thankfully driven into the Chelsea wall. Lacazette badly sliced a shot a couple of minutes later when found in space by Jack Wilshere.
Moments later and up the other end, Moses cut inside and unleashed a fierce strike that Ospina was lucky to have enough time to grab at the second attempt, with Morata and Fabregas about to pounce.
Then Marcos Alonso, so dangerous in attack these days, fashioned space to pull a shot across the box which could have taken a touch goalwards off Morata. Chelsea were at this stage on top, emphasised when Moses again shot from an angle and Ospina kept it out at the foot of the post.
On this day when history was made at Stamford Bridge, with video technology in use by the match officials for the first time at a Chelsea game, there was radio consultation by referee Martin Atkinson with his assistants when Cesar Azpilicueta and Calum Chambers had a tussle before a corner was taken, but he deemed no need for action beyond a few words. There was further checking after a challenge on Fabregas.
On 38 minutes Arsenal went their closest in the first half. Rudiger did not get any distance on a clearance and Iwobi was able to let fly. Thibaut Courtois made a good save, followed moments later by the officials clearing Moses of a foul on Iwobi in the penalty area.
Two minutes before the interval came a clear chance for Chelsea. It was from one of those curving Azpi balls in again, such a feature of the season so far, but this time it was Fabregas rather than the nearby Morata who got his head to it, and Ospina was able to save.
The Blues came out the second-half blocks well. Kante had the misfortune to see a shot blocked by Christensen, who in turn could not hit the target with a header at the far post after Alonso had flicked on.
The Gunners were finding it hard to retain possession, illustrated when Rudiger nicked the ball off the toe of Wilshere, soon to go off injured, and went for the heart of the Arsenal defence. Granit Xhaka was booked for stopping him.
Ten minutes into the half Morata hit a splendid shot from outside the area which Ospina did well to save. The Spaniard then escaped Mustafi and almost found the target from a near-impossible angle.
Conte’s men were creating the half-chances, but could the team conjure up something clear-cut?
Moses’s sweetly struck shot looked goalbound until turned over by the outstretched leg of Mustafi and from the corner, Christensen got a clean header in but sent it wide. A counter-attack fizzled out when Hazard delayed his shot too long. We moved into the last 20 minutes of this first leg.
Willian had a long-range shot saved and Hazard stretched Arsenal again on the break, although it needed Kante at his elastic best, and then a diligent block by Azpilicueta to prevent a counter-punch by our London rivals.
But this had been Chelsea’s half despite the lack of goals, and a deflected Fabregas cross struck the outside of the post, after which a challenge on our midfielder by Welbeck inside the penalty area a couple of minutes earlier was referred to the Video Assistant Referee but with nothing doing from a Chelsea perspective.
So the tie effectively becomes a single leg, put to one side for the time being with Premier League and FA Cup business to conduct first.
Chelsea (3-5-2): Courtois; Azpilicueta (c), Christensen, Rudiger; Moses, Drinkwater (Willian 68), Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Hazard (Bakayoko 84), Morata (Batshuayi 87).
Unused subs Eduardo, Zappacosta, David Luiz, Pedro.
Booked Kante 79
Arsenal (3-4-3): Ospina; Chambers, Mustafi, Holding; Bellerin, Xhaka, Wilshere (Elneny 57), Maitland-Niles; Iwobi, Lacazette (Sanchez 66), Welbeck.
Unused subs Macey, Mertesacker, Mavropanos, Nelson, Walcott.
Booked Xhaka 51, Elneny 86
Referee Martin Atkinson