Chelsea’s hopes of retaining their Premier League title may have long since gone, but they could yet deliver a major blow to Arsenal’s hopes of ending their long championship drought. A massive 19 points and 13 places improbably separate the two London rivals going into Sunday’s clash at the Emirates Stadium, but a victory would see the league leaders clear a lofty physical and psychological hurdle en route to what Arsenal hope will be a title party in May.
Arsenal’s last championship in 2004 coincided with the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge and the transformation of Chelsea into the toughest team in England. Even between his two spells in charge, that steel remained. And now, even after his departure, there are signs of its presence once again. In contrast, while Chelsea have won four titles since 2004, Arsenal’s brittleness and naivety has prevented them from finishing top of the Premier League pile. No team has exposed those deficiencies more than Chelsea.
Arsenal have won just four of their 23 Premier League matches against Chelsea since the start of the 2004-2005 season, with their last victory coming in Oct. 2011. Since then, Arsenal have been on the wrong end of a 6-0 demolition that effectively ended their hopes of landing the title two seasons ago. Even last September, when Chelsea were in the midst of their worst start to a season in recent memory, they still managed to conjure up a 2-0 victory over Arsenal. It is no surprise, then, that Wenger sees Sunday’s match as a massive test, although one he insists his team are ready to pass.
“It is another game where people look at us and see how we behave because, even if Chelsea are not in the best position, you look at their squad,” Arsene Wenger said in his pre-match press conference. “It is a big game because of the quality of players on the pitch and it has a big importance to us as well because we play at the Emirates and we know how important it will be important to win these games.
“We have certainly proved our battling potential [this season] through big solidarity, through great togetherness and as well because we are ambitious and we have more experience than in the past in the team. One of the advantages of having experienced players is that they know that sometimes it’s just about battling and not always only about playing well.”
Currently only ahead of Leicester City on goal difference, Arsenal’s hopes of remaining top on Sunday will be boosted by the return of Mesut Özil, after he sat out Sunday’s scoreless result at Stoke City with a foot problem. Alexis Sánchez could also be available for selection after nearly two months out with a hamstring injury. However, Wenger’s cautious comments ahead of the match suggest that the best the Chilean can hope for is a place among the substitutes.
Chelsea could get their own injury boost, having returned to training this week as he steps up his comeback from a groin problem that has kept him sidelined since a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace at the start of the month. That was the only Premier League victory Guus Hiddink has secured since taking the reins following Mourinho’s departure last month. But the veteran Dutch coach has steadied the ship, going six matches without defeat, including a win in the FA Cup third round.
Like Arsenal, Chelsea have drawn their last two matches, with the concession of a late equalizer against West Brom being followed by captain John Terry getting a 98th minute leveler in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Everton last Saturday.
D: Bellerín , Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal
M: Flamini, Ramsey
Campbell, Özil , Walcott
D: Ivanovic, Zouma, Terry, Azpilicueta
M: Matic, Mikel
Willian, Fabregas, Pedro
Prediction: Chelsea have shipped five goals in their last two outings, but a visit to the Emirates Stadium will likely see them adopt a strategy closer to the cautious one adopted in a goalless draw at Manchester United last month. There will be one notable difference from that encounter on Sunday, however, in the availability of a finally in-form Diego Costa. The striker’s antics helped get Gabriel sent off at Stamford Bridge last September and both his provocations and ability to lead the line will threaten Arsenal’s chances on Sunday. Still missing Francis Coquelin, Arsenal could be vulnerable to Chelsea’s counter-attacks and Wenger’s men may have to settle for a draw.
Predicted score: Arsenal 1-1 Chelsea