Didier Drogba overshadowed debutant Michael Essien to poach a fluke winner for Chelsea’s first league victory over Arsenal in 10 years in Sunday’s Premiership clash at Stamford Bridge.
Drogba once again outmuscled Philippe Senderos — as he did twice at Cardiff’s Millennium stadium in the Community Shield — to latch on to a Frank Lampard free kick and bundle the ball past Jens Lehmann.
The goal owed little to Drogba’s skill or technique, though, as it bounced off his knee as he tried to control it in full stride in the 73rd minute.
The 1-0 victory gave the reigning champions an early advantage over the 2004 champions in the race for this year’s title.
”It’s fantastic and it’s important,” said Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho. ”We beat our opponents for the title. We have won against them twice in 16 days — it’s important but it’s one more game.
”If you lose this game, it’s not the end of the world; if you win you’re not the best team in the world, so you have to keep calm.
”We have to play better than what we did, but it’s good to win. The season is very similar to last season when we beat Manchester United and weren’t outstanding.”
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger bemoaned his team’s cutting edge.
”I feel our physical pressure was too weak, therefore we did not score,” said the Frenchman. ”We had enough possession to score goals and we need to be more efficient.
”There are a lot of positives but you have to acknowledge we gave a stupid goal away and did not score.”
Wenger had looked determined not to lose his 500th match in charge of the Gunners, opting for a conservative approach.
He employed a five-man midfield with Pires operating in an advanced role to support lone front man Thierry Henry, with Freddie Ljungberg and Alexander Hleb probing from the flanks.
But the French handler was forced into a change after 25 minutes as Ljungberg limped off to be replaced by Robin van Persie, who went to play alongside Henry, allowing Pires to revert to right midfield.
Mourinho played the in-form Hernan Crespo up front instead of Drogba, but Essien had to be content with a place on the bench — more than was offered to Ricardo Carvalho, who paid for his midweek dissent with a place in the stands.
The two London giants created a glut of chances in the first three minutes.
First, Damien Duff scampered down the right on to an incisive Lampard pass, only to be beaten to the ball by goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.
From the resulting corner, John Terry rose highest to power a header goalwards that beat Lehmann but not Ljungberg standing by the back post.
Next it was Arsenal’s turn to threaten with Henry placing a deliberate curling shot from 20 yards just past the post after neat build-up play.
The match was briefly interrupted by a streaker who went through a whole gymnastic routine and hugged Ljungberg and Lauren before the dozing stewards reacted to his presence.
On 12 minutes, Ljungberg blazed a shot over the bar after he was set up by Henry following a rapier counter-attack. A minute later, Terry again arrived unchecked to meet a Duff corner but this time he could only send his effort well wide.
Chelsea survived a penalty appeal when Pires’s corner bounced up and hit Lampard’s arm, but referee Graham Poll was unsighted at the far end of the penalty area.
Right at the end of the first half, Arsenal and Lehmann rode their luck as the German stopper blocked a bobbling shot from Arjen Robben with his face after good build-up play between Duff and Lampard.
Wenger was by far the more animated and agitated of the two managers as Arsenal’s normal fluid passing game started to break down under Chelsea’s suffocating pressure.
Just as he did a week ago, Mourinho wasted little time in trying to find a goal, swapping the ineffectual Crespo with Drogba at half-time.
The game became stretched in the second half, which played into the hands of the visitors, but Arsenal tried to be too clever and a series of back-and-forth passes between Van Persie and Henry ended before either man managed a shot at goal.
Mourinho introduced Essien for his debut, along with Shaun Wright-Phillips with Eidur Gudjohnsen and Robben making way.
After the goal, Henry forced a sprawling save from Peter Cech with a dipping drive but the Gunners never looked like breaching the well-marshalled Chelsea rearguard.
Drogba should have scored a second in stoppage time, but tamely hit his shot straight at Lehmann. — Sapa-AFP