Chelsea revived their ailing Premier League title defense as second-half goals from Kurt Zouma and Eden Hazard scored second-half goals gave the champions a 2-0 victory over an Arsenal side that finished with nine men at Stamford Bridge. Zouma, starting in place of captain John Terry, had made the breakthrough in a tight, tense and often fractious encounter at Stamford Bridge, when heading in Cesc Fabregas’ free-kick eight minutes after the interval.
But rather than a first Premier League goal for the young Frenchman, it will be the sending off of Arsenal defender Gabriel that will be the main talking point from the latest meeting between fierce managerial rivals Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. Chelsea had been marginally on top before a real moment of controversy in first-half injury time enlivened proceedings and ultimately turned the tide decisively in their favor.
As so often Diego Costa was the instigator. Having escaped punishment for putting his hands into the face of and then swinging a hand back at Laurent Koscielny, both Costa and Gabriel were booked for a follow-up altercation. It was not difficult to see that neither player was ready to let the matter lie. And just seconds later, in full view of referee Mike Dean, Gabriel appeared to flick his heel back at the leg of Costa while waiting for a goal kick. The decision was a straight red, which may have been harsh, especially in light of the actions Costa had escaped sanction for. Yet Gabriel had foolishly lapped up the bait from the Premier League’s chief provocateur.
To add further to Arsenal’s already considerable aggravation, Santi Cazorla was shown a second yellow card with 11 minutes remaining and effectively end Arsenal’s hopes of finding an equalizer. Hazard’s strike, deflected past Petr Cech by Calum Chambers only rubbed salt into the Arsenal wounds.
Wenger unsurprisingly had some strong words about Dean's performance after the final whistle. But Mourinho will surely care little. After back-to-back Premier League defeats and three losses in their first five matches, this was a most welcome win, even ignoring the fact that it stretches his unbeaten run against Wenger in the Premier League to 11 matches. And there was more encouragement besides merely the result. While still clearly short of their title-winning best, there were, following a 4-0 win in the Champions League in midweek, further encouraging signs that they are slowly getting back on the right track. Hazard, in particular, showed some of the sparkle that he so regularly delivered last season to be voted by his fellow professionals as the best player in the England last season.
Yet Arsenal will feel that the game was going to plan before Gabriel’s dismissal. Having brought back those players rested for the midweek defeat at Dinamo Zagreb, Wenger was seemingly happy for his side to sit back and contain before striking on the break. Early on Theo Walcott, back in the lineup in place of Olivier Giroud, on more than one occasion threatened to get in behind a Chelsea defense missing its benched leader. Yet that early danger subsided as the pace and athleticism of Zouma justified his selection over Terry and raised further questions about the 34-year-old’s both short- and long-term future.
And even when both teams had 11 men on the pitch, the clearest opportunities went the way of the home side. Pedro failed to take the ball under his control from a fine ball in behind the defense from Fabregas. Meanwhile, Chelsea had their own reason to question the referee when Hazard went on a storming run into the box only to be shoved to the ground by Gabriel.
Ultimately, it was, as when Giroud was sent off in Zagreb on Wednesday, ill-discipline that cost Arsenal. Gabriel should have known better than to get lured in by Costa and Arsenal rarely looked like getting anything from the game once Zouma was left free to head past former Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. Hazard’s scrappy goal symbolized the win. This may not have been vintage Chelsea, but simply getting over the line was all that mattered as they seek to avoid falling further behind runaway leaders Manchester City.