Just four points separate Chelsea from Arsenal heading into Saturday’s Premier League showdown, with the first-placed Blues having played a game more. A win for either side would keep them firmly in contention in a seesaw title race. A defeat and it might be curtains.
Here’s how the two London heavyweights match up heading into the crucial encounter.
Both teams are well catered for between the sticks. Petr Cech makes more errors now than in his peak, and has been caught out a couple of times from crosses of late, but he remains one of the best stopper’s in the league. For Arsenal, Wojciech Szczesny can still be somewhat rash in his decision making but has become a far steadier presence this season.
Chelsea and Arsenal have a set of center-backs that have provided a strong foundation throughout much of the season. Jose Mourinho’s desire for his players to sit deep has suited Gary Cahill and, particularly, John Terry, who are eminently more comfortable with the play being in front of them. Missing the pace of Theo Walcott and the running from deep of Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal are likely to struggle to get Chelsea’s defenders on the turn. Full-backs Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta offer good protection down the sides, if not the best outlets going forward.
The complimentary partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker has rarely been exposed this season, despite the sometimes impetuousness of the former and lack of pace of the latter. They produced one of their best performances of the season just last week in keeping a Tottenham side, who were on top for most of the encounter, at bay. One of the game’s most intriguing battles will be between Bacary Sagna and Eden Hazard. The Arsenal man has been one of the Premier League’s best right-backs this season but will have to be alert at all times to prevent the Belgian from getting in behind him.
With Ramires suspended for his horrendous challenge against Aston Villa, Mourinho is likely to partner Nemanja Matic with Frank Lampard in the middle. Matic has been key since arriving in January and will be pivotal on Saturday in breaking up Arsenal’s intricate passing in between the lines before initiating counter attacks. Further forward there were encouraging signs from Oscar against Galatasaray in midweek. The Brazilian has been poor of late, but his combination play with Hazard and creative ability will be especially needed to break down Arsenal if they opt to sit back. With Willian also suspended, Andre Schurrle is set to start as the third of the attacking midfield trio. There will be ample pace therefore to exploit Arsenal if the Gunners get their defensive line wrong.
Mathieu Flamini and/or Mikel Arteta will thus have an important job to keep pressure on the ball in front of the back four. The selection decision that will perhaps tell us most about Arsene Wenger’s intentions at Stamford Bridge is whether Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain starts in central midfield or in an advanced role on the right. While the England international’s dynamism would be useful going forward from a deeper, role, Wenger’s options in the attacking midfield positions are limited by the continued absence of Mesut Ozil and Walcott. If he starts, Lukas Podolski’s lack of defensive responsibility is something that Mourinho would surely look to exploit.
Neither team are able to reply on prolific strikers. Chelsea’s lack of firepower has been well-documented, not least by Mourinho. Although lacking the devastating pace of his younger years, Samuel Eto’o can still be a reliable finisher in front of goal, while his knowhow and ability to link the play has been useful. Olivier Giroud is also having to rely on his support play with his run of goals at the start of the season having dried up of late.
D: Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta
M: Lampard, Matic
Schurrle, Oscar, Hazard
D: Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs
M: Arteta, Flamini
Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Cazorla
Much of the outcome of the clash will depend on how bold each manager is willing to be. In truth, a draw would be far from ideal for either side, but how much Mourinho and Wenger are willing to risk given that a defeat would be a major blow to either team’s title chances remains to be seen. While reactive by nature Mourinho has shown a capacity, as he did at City, to seize upon an opponent’s weaknesses with vigor when he senses blood. It is likely to be a cagey affair but Chelsea could just knick a goal to secure a precious win.
Chelsea 1-0 Arsenal