After seven matches in the past month, Arsenal will be glad for an easing of the fixture list ahead of the resumption of the Champions League and a tantalizing matchup with Barcelona in February. Yet the next 10 days still contain two big matches for Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger, who will be desperate to have two of his most influential players back available.
First comes a meeting with London rivals Chelsea on Sunday, when Arsenal will attempt to preserve their narrow advantage at the top of the Premier League. Draws in their last two matches, at Liverpool and at Stoke City, have allowed surprise package Leicester City to move level on points with the Gunners and trail only by three in the goal-difference column.
The upcoming clash with Chelsea, then, will be key, and not just for the three points on offer. Despite topping the table, the concession of a late equalizer at Liverpool a week ago brought fresh doubts about whether Arsenal have the requisite strength of character to get over the line and end a 12-year wait for a Premier League title.
During that that drought, Arsenal have often come unstuck when the pressure has been at its most intense. And no team has taken advantage of Arsenal’s soft center more than Chelsea. Since Chelsea became a true force with the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004, Arsenal have won just four of their 23 Premier League matches against the Blues. It has been more than four years since their last victory, and a 6-0 defeat two years ago remains relatively fresh in the memory. It was that match more than any other that exposed the naivety that has for so long blighted Arsenal and hampered their title chances. Even last September when Chelsea were in the midst of a disastrous start to the season they still conjured up a 2-0 win over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.
Of course, one factor will be different at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday -- Mourinho won’t be there. Still Chelsea have been revived since Mourinho’s exit last month, and have gone seven matches unbeaten under interim manager Guus Hiddink. A tough challenge awaits, although one that will be eased should Wenger have his two most expensive signings back at his disposal.
Alexis Sánchez, who was initially diagnosed with a minor hamstring strain when he was forced off against Norwich City, has now been on the sidelines for close to two months. He looks set to return in some capacity on Sunday, although, given how much care has been taken not to rush his comeback, the Chilean is likely to start from the bench.
The situation appears more straightforward for Mesut Özil. The German, who leads the Premier League with 16 assists, should make an immediate return to the starting lineup after sitting out Sunday’s match at Stoke.
“He had an inflammation on his foot and yesterday morning we looked and he was not very well,” Wenger said after the draw with Stoke. “He was not 100 percent at Liverpool so I decided to leave him out. I think he should be back for next Sunday."
And the attacking duo could then be back in tandem when Arsenal return to FA Cup action the following Saturday. Having begun the defense of the trophy they have won for the past two seasons with a 3-1 win over Sunderland, the Gunners will host Championship side Burnley in the fourth round. Following relegation from the Premier League last season, the Lancashire club currently sit fourth in England’s second tier. Their recent form has been impressive, having recorded three straight victories, including an impressive 2-1 win at the home of Championship leaders Middlesbrough in the FA Cup third round.
Beyond that match, Arsenal should continue to receive fitness boosts. Tomas Rosicky could feature in an Under-21 game this week as he continues to build up his fitness, while Danny Welbeck and Francis Coquelin are due to step up their recoveries in the coming weeks.