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Chelsea had managed to more or less cruise through the opening stages of their 2012/13 Premier League campaign, but they'd yet to achieve a signature result. Wins against Wigan, Reading, Newcastle and Stoke are all well and good, but it'd be difficult to proclaim that the Blues had reached their old level without beating more serious competition. Undefeated Arsenal at the Emirates was always going to be the first major milestone of the new season.
And the Blues came through with flying colours. Roberto di Matteo kept his front line more or less unchanged despite a relatively poor performance against Stoke City, and they answered with goals from both Fernando Torres and Juan Mata -- goals against an Arsenal side which had only conceded twice in their opening five fixtures. At the other end of the pitch, sloppy defending gave the Gunners far too many chances, but Petr Cech came up huge to preserve what was eventually a 2-1 victory.
The opening stages of the match all went Chelsea's way. After dominating possession against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium last weekend, one might have expected Arsenal to control the midfield with relative ease, but Oscar, so effective at hounding Juventus' Andrea Pirlo on his debut, shut down Mikel Arteta completely. Then Abou Diaby managed to pick up the injury he was due for, and Santi Cazorla found himself isolated against John Obi Mikel and Ramires. That turned out not to work so well.
One of the ongoing storylines this season has been the reinvigoration of the Arsenel defence under the tutelage of Steve Bould. In recent years, Arsene Wenger's team had been a byword for defensive frailty, but they'd only shipped two goals in the early stages (in a blowout against Southampton and then from a corner against Manchester City, a match they drew). That narrative was blown apart here.
Thomas Vermaelen brought down Eden Hazard with a rash challenge 35 yards from goal, and Laurent Koscielny managed to turn his back to the ball as Mata's delivery made its way to the far post, floating just over the outstretched locks of David Luiz's hair. Torres ended up behind the defender, but managed to take advantage of the lapse of concentration to stick out a boot and hammer past Vito Mannone. 1-0 Chelsea.
It could have been two shortly thereafter. Another mistake by Koscielny put Torres in one-on-one against the Gunners keeper, but this time the composure wasn't there and the striker completely mis-cued his shot. There were claims for a penalty, but they were pretty silly claims.
Had Torres put that second chance away, the game would presumably have been far more comfortable. Instead, Arsenal were allowed back into the match and ratcheted up the pressure on the Chelsea back line. Ashley Cole in particular was having issues -- his side was being overloaded and there wasn't much he could do about it -- and eventually the equaliser would come from a cross on our left.
Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, on for the stricken Diaby, was the provider, although his cross should have been cleared by Cole. Instead, said cross made its way to Gervinho in the middle, who was free thanks to both Chelsea centre backs dropping back at once. Given the space to turn and fire past Cech, the Ivorian did just that, making it 1-1 just before the interval and undoing all of the good work in the first half.
Not to worry. A severe case of the Koscielnies afflicted Arsenal shortly after the restart, gifting Chelsea their second. Again, Thomas Vermaelen was drawn into a needless foul, this time bringing down Torres and earning himself a booking in the process. Again, Mata swung in the free kick. This time, Koscielny managed to keep Torres from latching onto the ball, but he didn't actually bother clearing it and the mixup saw Mannone letting the ball creep into his bottom corner. Whoops.
Lukas Podolski attempted a reply, cutting Chelsea's open with a phenomenal run and header only to be denied by a full-stretch save from Cech. The goalkeeper came to the rescue yet again after a Cazorla shot deflected off David Luiz -- wrong-footed, Cech was still able to push the awkward ball just wide of the post. Chelsea seemed content to soak up pressure and hit their hosts on the counterattack, but their attempts to break were mostly thwarted by their odd habit of sending attempted through balls straight into their own players' backs.
Di Matteo took steps to ensure his lead would be held, reinforcing both flanks by adding Victor Moses and Ryan Bertrand to the game. He also introduced Gary Cahill for David Luiz, who was struggling with an injury. It was just about enough, although Arsenal would get one last chance when Olivier Giroud sauntered through the defence, rounded Cech, and hit the side netting (from an admittedly tight angle).
But that was the last scare the Blues would face. The rest of injury time was marked by the likes of Eden Hazard and Ryan Bertrand holding possession deep in the Arsenal half, seeing out the game without any further problems. This was a great result on top of a good performance, and beating a potential top-four rival on their home ground means one thing: Chelsea are back.