After frustrating Manchester United en route to a 1-0 win, Chelsea can take a penultimate step toward their first Premier League title in five years at Arsenal on Sunday. Victory over third-place United has given Chelsea a 10-point lead over Arsenal with just six matches remaining, meaning a win at the Emirates would allow José Mourinho’s side to then claim the championship with all three points at Leicester City on Wednesday.
But don’t expect Mourinho to relax just yet. Chelsea have already set the record for the number of days atop the Premier League, having been either leaders or co-leaders throughout the season. Yet it has still very much been a season of two distinct halves. The first part of the campaign saw Mourinho embrace the arrival of Cesc Fabregas, handing the former Arsenal man the creative reigns to the team from a deep midfield position and playing a more open brand of football than has traditionally been his want. But as Chelsea began to falter toward the turn of the year, characterized by a 5-3 defeat to Tottenham, and Manchester City hauled them back, Mourinho has reverted to type.
Since beating Swansea City 5-0 on Jan. 17, Chelsea have failed to win a Premier League game by more than a single goal. It has perhaps been a convergence of two factors that has led to an obvious switch in approaches. The first has been the obvious physical decline within his squad. The consistency of Mourinho’s lineup selections, which were seen as a huge strength in the first half of the campaign, has taken its toll in the second half. And it is Fabregas whose drop off has been most pronounced. Having contributed directly to a goal, through scoring or assisting, 17 times in his first 21 Premier League appearances of the season, he has done so just three times in eight matches since.
As against Manchester United, he has also increasingly been moved into a more advanced role as Mourinho seeks more defensive assurance alongside Nemanja Matic. Coupled with a hamstring injury that has increasingly hampered top scorer Diego Costa, Chelsea have been far less devastating.
Yet, in a testament to Mourinho’s qualities, they have become more efficient. Despite never being particularly impressive, Chelsea have dropped just eight points from the last 48 available. That works out as only two more than the first 12 games of the season when Chelsea received widespread praise. And there is a definite sense that Mourinho is more comfortable with Chelsea’s current guise. Unperturbed by criticism for perceived negativity, he thrives on being able to have maximum control over a situation. In a safety-first performance of the type put on against Manchester United last week, he has greater ability to do just that.
That attitude is one of the reasons he has had such a tumultuous relationship with his counterpart on Sunday, Arsène Wenger. The two could not be more different in terms of their approach to the game. While there has often appeared very little Mourinho wouldn’t do to get a desired result, Wenger has given the impression that he would rather lose than compromise his ideals about how the sport should be played.
That ideologue stance, up against the ultra-pragmatism of Mourinho, has been in large part responsible for the fact that Wenger goes into Sunday’s fixture having never yet come out on top against the Portuguese in 12 attempts. Yet he may well think that this latest fixture represents his best chance yet to end that most unwelcome record against a man he shoved on the sidelines during their last confrontation.
Arsenal are on a nine-match winning run, their best since their unbeaten Premier League campaign of 2003-2004 -- the season before Mourinho arrived to change the face of the Premier League. Indeed, Arsenal top the Premier League form table in 2015, having dropped just three points since New Year’s Day.
Their form has been based around the quality of their attacking players, with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey all fit for the first time together and striking up a fluid relationship going forward. Yet Arsenal’s form has also featured greater resilience than has typically been associated with Wenger’s teams of recent years -- conceding just seven goals since New Year’s Day. There have been signs of Wenger showing greater flexibility, too, and being ready to dig in as well as entertain.
Still Arsenal have yet to show that they can put together such an impressive series of results when under pressure. While Chelsea have been defending their lead, Arsenal have been playing without expectancy as they play catch-up to a Chelsea team few anticipate them to actually catch. While Chelsea have ground out the required results so far, Arsenal spectacularly failed to do so in the same position last season. In Feb. 2014, Arsenal traveled to Anfield while atop of the Premier League table, only to be thumped by Liverpool, 5-1, which precipitated into a spectacular season collapse for the Gunners.
There is more recent evidence that Arsenal have yet failed to solve the psychological issue of performing with expectation on their shoulders. Two months ago they were strong favorites to get past Monaco in the Champions League, but calamitously lost 3-1 at home. And even in last week’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Arsenal were unconvincing in requiring a spectacular goalkeeping error to get them past Championship side Reading in extra-time.
When it comes down to it, Mourinho remains the master at ensuring the result he needs. And on Sunday, he will know that a point at the Emirates will be good enough to halt Arsenal’s momentum and end any lingering talk of an active title race.
Prediction: Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea
Arsenal: Per Mertesacker is rated as 50/50 by Wenger to recover from an ankle injury picked up against Reading. Giroud, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are likely to return to the side after being rested at Wembley.
Chelsea: Mourinho has said a decision will be taken on Costa’s fitness 24 hours before the match, Fellow-striker Loic Remy is definitely ruled out, but Didier Drogba will be fit to lead the line if Costa doesn’t make it.
Kickoff time: Sunday, 11 a.m. EDT