All that rancour that has infected this club was thrust into the background by a rumbustious London derby, the dissent at Rafael Benítez's presence more grumbling here than bellowed protest. A victory against local rivals that has strengthened their position in third place provided some respite.
There was still the fluttering of nerves to endure through a second half when Arsenal, so disheveled up to then, revived and rallied to the extent that Chelsea felt as if they were clinging on at times. But, where they had wilted against Queens Park Rangers, Swansea and Southampton, the home side dug deep and resisted this time. There was plenty to admire in Gary Cahill's fine intervention to deny Theo Walcott in the six-yard box four minutes into stoppage time at the end, and anxiety when Olivier Giroud looped a header on to the roof of the net seconds later, but the final whistle was celebrated with gusto.
This will not represent a definitive change in the tide. The heckling of Benítez will remain, and will return when Chelsea next stutter, but there was relief to be found in a second home win in seven domestic matches under his interim stewardship. Even the 16th minute tribute to Roberto Di Matteo went forgotten here, the locals too busy anticipating and then celebrating Frank Lampard's 195th goal for the club from the penalty spot. Throw in the agreement over Ashley Cole's contract extension and Roman Abramovich even managed a smile at the end. An upbeat afternoon at home has felt rare.
Arsenal were admirable after the break, though their first half deficiencies had left them too much to retrieve. Arsène Wenger would have been exasperated by those early failings. The previous week they had been handed the mitigating circumstances provided by Laurent Koscielny's early dismissal against Manchester City. This time around they could point to a foul on Francis Coquelin in the build-up to Juan Mata's opener, or to Ramires's eagerness to tumble over Wojciech Szczesny's challenge to earn a penalty on the quarter-hour mark. Yet their argument was undermined by the chaotic nature of their defending throughout, Arsenal's back-line constantly dragged out of position by the fluid motion of the hosts' attacking.
Eden Hazard, Oscar and Mata swarmed all over them, with defenders dizzied and disorientated by the onslaught. There was to be no containing their intent. The foul in the build-up to the first goal had been committed by Ramires on Coquelin just inside the Chelsea half but, while the Frenchman sunk to the turf, the visitors were ramshackle in resisting the home side's counter. Cesar Azpilicueta's crossfield pass found Mata, with Bacary Sagna out of position and helpless, with the Spaniard's finish through Szczesny emphatic.
Hazard forced the Pole into a save moments later, but Ramires – an explosion of energy in midfield with Arsenal diminished too often in his presence – was soon dispossessing Abou Diaby and sending Mata into enemy territory. The Brazilian continued his run into space to collect his team-mate's return and, after attempting to wriggle around the goalkeeper, crumpled to the floor as Szczesny dived in. There appeared to be a desire to fall, possibly once he knew the chance was escaping him, but Lampard duly converted from the spot.
There should have been no hint of a revival thereafter, yet Chelsea had seen a similar position of authority eroded in midweek by Southampton and there was anxiety when Arsenal began the second period with more urgency. Per Mertesacker and Theo Walcott were denied by Petr Cech, while twice Giroud might have registered. Benítez must have sensed what was coming, the Spaniard barking orders almost indiscriminately from his technical area and urging concentration, but minds were becoming frazzled.
Santi Cazorla, peripheral up to then, duly squeezed a fine pass behind a back-tracking Branislav Ivanovic for Walcott to collect and convert his ninth league goal of term beyond Cech. That heightened the tension again, Chelsea pushed back in defence but potent on the break – Demba Ba was only denied by Thomas Vermaelen's goal-line clearance on the break – but still desperate for the final whistle. When it came, they had reason to rejoice.
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image: © Tom Cuppens