Arsenal could see their run at the top of the Premier League come to an end with the visit of Chelsea on Monday, in a match that features two sides with questions to answer over their recent performances.
Arsenal’s lead in the table has been cut to just two points from Chelsea and Liverpool after a 6-3 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City last time out. That result came on the back of a 2-0 defeat to Napoli that saw them drop down to second in their Champions League group and now face the ominous task of taking on Bayern Munich in the Round of 16. December was always going to be a massive month for Arsene Wenger’s side. It is now crucial that they regain their momentum before much of their early season optimism starts to fade away.
The seven days break between the humbling loss at the Etihad and the meeting with Chelsea should aid Arsenal significantly in that goal. Against City, as they did in their previous defeat to Manchester United, Arsenal looked jaded from their midweek excursion in Europe. Their relatively small squad has clearly not helped in that regard, with Olivier Giroud particularly appearing to show the strain of carrying the workload up front. But with the break and with Theo Walcott returning with two goals against City to provide a different dimension to their attack, there is reason for optimism.
The biggest problem for Arsenal in getting a positive result against Chelsea may well be psychological. Few statistics have been so often repeated as that which relays that Wenger has never yet gotten the better of a side managed by Jose Mourinho. In the Portuguese’s first spell at Stamford Bridge, his physical Chelsea side brutally exposed both the flaws that saw Arsenal fall away from winning major trophies.
They have yet to fully show that those issues have been resolved. Arsenal have become perhaps the best team around in fulfilling expectations against weaker sides, but last season they took just two points from 18 available in matches against the rest of the Premier League top four. It suggests that they have a problem raising their level for the games that matter the most. With defeats already this season to Manchester United, Manchester City and, in the League Cup, Chelsea, they need to end that run if they, regardless of outside observations, are to truly believe that they can end their decade-long drought without a Premier League title.
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But while the name of the team and the manager may evoke natural reactions from those at Arsenal, this is far from the same Chelsea side that Mourinho produced first time around. All the doubts that existed at the start of the season have so far been borne out.
Chelsea’s squad was one created as part of Roman Abramovich’s obsession to house his own Barcelona. Yet, instead of securing the services of Pep Guardiola to mastermind his project, the Russian Oligarch instead settled for a man who is the aesthetically pre-occupied Spaniard’s philosophical nemesis. Not only does it feel as though Abramovich settled, but that Mourinho has done likewise. A man with a determined and defined plan for his career was snubbed twice in the space of a couple of months by the ultimate soccer royalty -- Real Madrid and Manchester United.
Some of the fire appears to have gone and he appears less than pleased with the tools at his disposal. Rather than a squad full of mentally tough physical specimens, the team is led by twinkled-toed novices not designed for brutal counter-attacking soccer. In a more general sense, they are also unforgivably lightweight up front, as well as lacking in a dominant presence in the center of midfield. Worryingly, of late, their defense has also been unconvincing.
Yet, for all that, they could go top of the Premier League on Monday. It is why, for all their problems, it would be dangerous to write Chelsea off. On a par with Sir Alex Ferguson, Mourinho has shown an ability to achieve maximum results from his players in the past decade by any means necessary.
If Chelsea win the Premier League this season, it is hard to envisage it being pretty. And the same methods are likely to be used in order to try and frustrate Arsenal at the Emirates. They may well be successful.
Prediction: Arsenal 1-1 Chelsea
Date and time: The Premier League match will kick off from the Emirates Stadium at 3 p.m. ET on Monday, December 23.