A tumultuous week for Chelsea Football Club ended in remarkable fashion Saturday lunchtime as the Blues were defeated 5-3 by Arsenal.
Robin van Persie’s hat-trick secured a huge three points for the visitors but it was the hosts’ defensive performance which was the subject of post-match discussion, as Arsene Wenger’s team found time and space with alarming regularity.
Andre Villas-Boas made two changes from the previous league outing away to Queens Park Rangers, with Fernando Torres returning from suspension to replace Didier Drogba, who was banned himself.
David Luiz was afforded a deserved rest as the only player to feature for the entire duration of the last two energy-sapping matches, whilst Nicolas Anelka failed a pre-match fitness test and was absent from the bench.
Even before Frank Lampard’s headed opener after a quarter of an hour the die had been cast in a frenetic match in which neither side seemed to care too much about defending.
Ashley Cole and Daniel Sturridge both made early gains in exposing Arsenal’s full-backs but their final delivery was lacking, whilst Ivorian forward Gervinho contrived to miss a wide open goal after Theo Walcott had roasted Cole for pace on a counter attack.
Lampard’s sixth goal of the season after a delightful cross from Juan Mata should therefore have seen Chelsea take a firmer control of proceedings but instead they found themselves stretched by Arsenal’s precise midfield approach play, and whilst van Persie wasted a golden opportunity at the far post, he wasn’t about to do his foes any further favours.
Mikel lost possession in his own half and lost Gervinho, who beat a poor attempt at an offside trap before squaring to his captain, who swept into an unguarded net.
The playground football continued almost unabated as Sturridge converted from Ramires’ cross but had done so from an offside position. The England Under-21 international had previously spurned a fine chance to extend the lead after an exquisite pass from Lampard but in front of the watching Fabio Capello failed to make a notable impression.
The Blues restored their lead shortly before half time when John Terry converted from a Lampard corner. After a week in which his name has once again hit the headlines, the club captain responded in familiar fashion by finding the back of the net.
Heading into the break with a lead, surely now Villas-Boas and his charges would look to consolidate their position and seek to take advantage of a notoriously favourable Arsenal defence?
Logic was to be defied yet again though, as Chelsea handed their opponents an equaliser on a silver platter. Jose Bosingwa was absent without leave and Sturridge failed to track full-back Andre Santos, who had time and space to beat Petr Cech from 18 yards.
The action immediately swung back the other way and from kickoff, Cole found himself bearing down on goal, but was crudely taken out by goalkeeper Szczesny.
The Polish custodian was given just a yellow card and admitted afterwards that he felt lucky to have stayed on the pitch.
Whether it was a turning point or not, the Blues continued to both play and defend in embarrassing fashion. No fewer than five players converged on a grounded Walcott but watched him get to his feet and the loose ball first before firing past Cech to seize the lead for the first time.
Chelsea’s manager responded with positivity, introducing Florent Malouda, Romelu Lukaku and Raul Meireles, and they had the desired effect as two of the replacements were involved in the game’s sixth goal.
Meireles closed down with tenacity to win possession and Lukaku used his ample frame to shield the ball into Mata’s path. The Spaniard unleashed a wicked effort from fully 30 yards which veered away from Szczesny and into the top corner to make it 3-3.
From despair and tension, the Stamford Bridge crowd had been lifted from their slumber and now urged their heroes to muster one last effort in search of victory.
Instead, a wildly mis-placed pass by Malouda left Terry scrambling, and as he fell over he presented van Persie with a clear route on goal. He duly rounded Cech and rolled the ball into the back of the net to secure the victory.
He added gloss to the day on both a personal and a team level with an emphatic finish in stoppage time to complete a hat-trick and put the seal on an utterly forgettable afternoon for the Chelsea faithful.
The Blues should have been out of sight before half an hour had even been played but a combination of poor execution from the players and obvious flaws in their defensive approach combined to shipping five goals for the first time in over a decade.
Let the inquest begin.
Chelsea: Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry (c), Cole; Ramires (Lukaku 72), Mikel (Meireles 75), Lampard; Sturridge (Malouda 61), Torres, Mata.
Subs not Used: Blackman, Bertrand, David Luiz, Romeu.