Erin Cuthbert's brilliant brace gave the Blues a deserved victory at the home of the league leaders, although it was a tense finish after Vivianne Miedema pulled one back for Arsenal late on.
Nothing less than a win would do at Meadow Park if our defence of the WSL title was to extend beyond the middle of January, and the Blues responded with one of our best performances of the season as we took the game to Arsenal from the opening whistle.
Our dominance was rewarded midway through the first half when Cuthbert belied her short frame to get up above the Arsenal defence to head in a cross from Hannah Blundell. The Scottish forward then doubled our lead after the break when she fired in a volley from the edge of the box.
Arsenal, having barely mustered an attack in the opening 80 minutes, managed to get themselves back into the game when Miedema tapped in from close range. It was the first goal we'd conceded in 13 games and despite a few nervy moments in the closing stages, we held on for a brilliant victory which puts pressure on the top two as we moved within two points of the Gunners, who have a game in hand.
Following the midweek win over Reading in the Continental Tyres League quarter-finals, which secured a last-four tie with Manchester City at Kingmeadow next month, Emma Hayes reverted to the same starting line-up which began the year with victory against Everton. Indeed, the matchday squad was virtually unchanged, save for the addition of Ramona Bachmann to the substitutes in place of Adelina Engman.
Hedvig Lindahl started between the posts, playing behind a back four of Blundell, Millie Bright, Magdalena Eriksson and Jonna Anderson. In midfield, Sophie Ingle and Drew Spence were the deepest of our five, with Cuthbert, Ji So-Yun and Karen Carney supporting Bethany England in attack.
The Blues made a strong start at Meadow Park, pressing high to prevent the home side passing out from the back and attacking with pace. We should have taken the lead in the 10th minute as England received the ball just outside the box with options either side of her and she opted for Carney, who tried to slide the ball under Peyraud-Magnin with her left foot only for the keeper to turn it behind for a corner.
Bright typified the early aggression being shown by the reigning WSL champions as she stepped in front of Beth Mead to snuff out an Arsenal attack and then continued her run into the box. Carney managed to pick out her run with a pin-point cross and though our No4 met it on the volley, her connection wasn't the cleanest and it was a straightforward save for the Gunners keeper.
Our forward players were finding plenty of space between the lines, which meant the early pass was always on for our defensive and midfield players, and both Cuthbert and Carney were seeing a lot of the ball both out wide and on those occasions when they were able to drift inside.
The Scot put the latter into practice to great effect just past the midway point of the half to give us a deserved lead. A patient build-up saw us work it out wide to Blundell and her cross was hung up into the box, with Cuthbert showing great desire and no small amount of skill to get up above the Arsenal defence to loop a header over Peyraud-Magnin. As she wheeled away in celebration, the primal roar let out indicated just what it meant to her and the team.
Buoyed by her 21st goal as a Blue, Cuthbert looked to add another as she drove at the Arsenal defence, who backed off and allowed her to let fly from outside the box with an effort which crept just past the far post with the keeper beaten. Another positive run soon after, this time by Spence, could have resulted in a penalty as she went down under a challenge from Quinn, but referee Rebecca Welch waved away the appeals.
When the half-time whistle blew, Hayes will have been delighted with her side's performance, which was full of verve and aggression, limiting the free-scoring league leaders to very little in the attacking third. An unchanged Chelsea XI took to the field after the break, while Arsenal were forced into a change as Mead, who suffered an injury before the end of the first half and was unable to continue, made way for Mitchell.
The Blues continued where we left off and there was a contentious moment 10 minutes into the half when only the assistant referee's raised flag prevented us from doubling our advantage. England led a break down the left and teed up Spence for a shot, which was blocked into the path of Carney. The skipper reacted quickly to clip a cross to the back stick and England powerfully headed home, but she was deemed to be offside by the narrowest of margins.
It was quickly forgotten about, though, as just six minutes later we doubled our lead and once again it was the brilliant Cuthbert on the scoresheet. This time England was adjudged to be onside as Ingle sent a cross into the box and though Quinn got her head to the ball, there wasn't enough purchase on it, which was all the invitation our Scottish forward needed to lash it home on the volley.
She made way soon after, along with Carney, as Hayes freshened things up by introducing Ali Riley and Fran Kirby, and the game continued along the same path as we continued to create chances. Two came along in quick succession from set-pieces, as Bright saw a header cleared over the bar by Quinn and then, from the resulting corner, Spence's shot from the edge of the box was deflected wide.
However, out of nowhere Arsenal got themselves back in the contest with their first shot of the game. Miedema, the WSL's top scorer, hadn't had a sniff, but she was alert to a break from Little and on hand to turn in a low cross from inside the six-yard box. It was the first time we had conceded since Arsenal's Jordan Nobbs had scored against us for the Gunners in the middle of October.
The goal sparked Miedema into life as she twice forced Lindhal into fine saves, the first from the header and the second at her near post with a powerful left-footed strike, although the Blues were still a threat as Kirby tested Peyraud-Magnin in between those two chances.
As the game entered stoppage time we required a last-ditch challenge from Eriksson to prevent Little getting through on goal, but we saw out the closing stages to hold on for a priceless victory. It was a lot closer than it should have been, given the dominance of our display, but what a huge three points that could turn out to be.
The players now head off on international duty, with our England contingent bound for a training camp in Qatar with the World Cup coming up this summer. It won't be long before the Blues are back in action, though, as we return to Kingsmeadow on Sunday 27 January to take on Birmingham City.
Arsenal Peyraud-Magnin, Williamson, Quinn, Arnth (Veje 77), McCabe, Bloodworth, Walti, Little, Evans, Miedema, Mead (Mitchell 46)
Unused subs Van Veenendaal, Kuyken
Scorer Miedema 80
Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Lindahl; Blundell, Bright, Eriksson, Andersson; Ingle, Spence; Cuthbert (Riley 66), Ji, Carney (Kirby 66); England (Carter 79)
Unused subs Telford, Asante, Cooper, Bachmann
Scorers Cuthbert 26, 62
Booked Carney 39, Ingle 79
Referee Rebecca Welch