Jose Mourinho may be gone and Chelsea may be far closer to the Premier League relegation zone than the top of the table, but Arsene Wenger is still anticipating an intense battle when Arsenal play host to their London foes on Sunday. The rivalry between the two clubs has become one of England’s fiercest in recent years, with Chelsea’s money-fueled rise in the Roman Abramovich era coinciding with Arsenal’s parsimony and title drought. No more starkly was the contrast between the two clubs represented than by the two men standing across from each other on the touchline for many of those clashes over recent years.
Mourinho, for whom winning is the only concern, against Wenger, who steadfastly refused to compromise his ideals of how the beautiful game should be played. The animosity between the two culminated in an infamous physical scuffle last season, but the most scathing blows have been delivered through the media.
Perhaps the most memorable was Mourinho’s “specialist in failure” jab directed at Wenger as his wait for a Premier League title extended past the decade mark. Thus, while he refuses to admit it, Wenger must smile wryly to himself at the fact that the man who delivered that barb has presided over one of the worst title defenses in the history of England’s top division and now finds himself out of a job. And Wenger could make this season even sweeter if he can finish it by landing a first championship in 12 years.
Wenger, who will have both Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez back available, has made it clear that beating Chelsea, something Arsenal have only done four times in their last 23 league meetings, would be another big step toward that goal. And he insists that he is focused on the quality of the players interim Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink can field on Sunday rather than the champions’ current standing, just five points and four places above the Premier League relegation zone.
“They are not in this title race but they are direct rivals because of the quality of their team,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “I think this season there have been exceptional circumstances for them and they will be back.”
“It will be an intense game, as usual what you get in the Premier League,” he said. “Overall I think, because of the quality of the players on the pitch and because of what is at stake for both teams, it will be a very intense battle, no matter who sits on the bench.”
It was certainly a battle when the teams met earlier this season. Arsenal had both Gabriel and Santi Cazorla sent off in a 2-0 defeat, while Diego Costa was later given a three-match ban for one of his numerous clashes with the opposition.
The fact that Costa has spent more time antagonizing opponents than scoring goals this season has been one of a number of issues that have contributed to Chelsea’s fall from grace. But the Spain international has found his form since Hiddink took charge last month, scoring five goals in his last five appearances.
Hiddink, who led Chelsea to victories over Arsenal in both the Premier League and FA Cup when he took charge for a similar interim spell in 2009, has confirmed that both Costa and Eden Hazard will be fit to return from injury at the Emirates Stadium. And he has urged Costa to avoid getting caught up in activities that distract from his primary responsibility.
“I don’t want to go into the past,” he said, according to Chelsea’s official website. “It’s a new day on Sunday. I haven’t seen the images where he was suspended by the FA later on.
“On the experience of this season, especially the last games, he is of big worth for us. I like him to be focused on that. The focus is on what he is good at and he is doing that. As I have said before I cannot guarantee anything as we are not dealing with machines, we are dealing with human beings. When he is focusing on what he is good at around the box he is of big worth.”
Kickoff time: 11 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra