Has the best team in London?
Of course, Tottenham, West Ham United and Crystal Palace would all argue that they should be counted in the reckoning, seeing they all sit above Chelsea too. Chelsea are still holders of the league title, however, and they’re still in the FA Cup and Champions League. In their minds, by hook or by crook, they will (somehow) believe it’s not over yet.
This match is a big one. Win it and Arsenal’s title chase seems well and truly on. Any other result and we drop from the top of the table and embolden those teams near us. It’s far too early to call this one a ‘must-win’ but the implications are stark. Chelsea are a punch-drunk and stumbling former champion but they will want to show a bit of fight against a team they’ve sometimes treated like a punching bag. We should remember they celebrated their nil-nil in this fixture late last season as if it was the title winner. Better that we administer the knock-out blow, I say.
We’ve already failed in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge thanks to the sublime officiating of one Mike Dean. We cannot afford to do likewise with Mark “Plugs” Clattenburg on the whistle.
Uh oh, talking about the ref already? Better than worrying about the handshake. Jose Mourinho would have to have some nerve to show up in our stadium trying to hunt down Arsene Wenger for the ritual greeting.
No, the Moo-man has been put to pasture, most likely because he lost the dressing room. I think it was worms that got him, but others are saying “Csnakes.” The various vipers who failed to find form under the Mourinho are still decent players and might still bring some venom. Injury worries over Eden Hazard and Diego Costa (Mourinho’s alter ego on the pitch?) appear lifted, while our own (almost) prodigal son, Cesc Fabregas, is back to something resembling the creative force we remember and were so heartbroken to see choose the blue side of town. Add in your favorite shade of Brazilian attacker (Willian, Oscar, Kennedy and/or Ramires) and it’s clear that Chelsea have weapons enough to hurt us.
In truth, it’s at the back where billionaire owner Roman Abramovich’s assembled squad has struggled the most. 31 goals scored in the league isn’t so bad; it ranks above Manchester United’s 28, for example. Instead, it’s the 34 conceded that shows the real problem. Letting Petr Cech come our way must be a recurring nightmare for the owner. Thibaud Cortois is a very fine keeper but he hasn’t been able to regain his title winning form since coming back from an early season injury. Moreover, Chelsea haven’t had a settled back four. Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry are showing their age. Kurt Zouma has made one of the center back positions his own but Gary Cahill has been less convincing. Ivanovic and left back Cesar Azpilicueta can, however, get forward and be dangerous as can the bigger guys at set pieces. John Terry’s last-kick-of-the-game (and very off-side) goal (in extra, extra time) rescued a point vs Everton a week ago. Did Abramovich put some money in the pockets of referee Mike Jones and his assistants?
Ah Geez, we’re back to talking about the refs. With his hair restored does Clattenburg really need more money? He’s been chosen (along with Martin Atkinson) to referee this summer at the Euros. Surely he must do better than Dean did in the reverse fixture.
Plugs is definitely one who tries to keep play moving by bantering with the players during the match. Arsenal must be prepared for Chelsea to work that angle as much as trying to work the ball. That sort of cynicism–and all those high price players–mean that new manager Guus Hiddink’s team should provide a stern test.
Maybe Wenger should try and mess him up during the handshakes. We have players returning to fitness but I wonder about their full readiness for this one.
On the plus side, Mesut Ozil, who didn’t travel to our nil-nil up in Stoke, has only played once since January 2nd so he should be very well primed. Alexis Sanchez, out since November, might finally be ready for a return to action. New signing Mohamed Elneny saw what English football is all about from the bench at the Britannia and will have had another week of training with the boys. Will those guys play or will Wenger stick with the group which got us through the darkest days of Winter and our injury crisis? I think we’ll see the latter group, but with stronger options, including Alexis, on the bench in case we need goals.
Subs: Ospina, Gabriel, Gibbs, Elneny, Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis
A conservative approach is likely on the cards even if we’d prefer going for the kill from the opening whistle. I’m not sure we’ve got the midfield players for such an approach and we’ll need to be wary of Chelsea’s quality in attack. Positional discipline, particularly from the deeper lying mids and full-backs seems critical. But maybe I’m off base. What say you, fellow Gooners?
I know the home support will want all three points if not the blood of the team which–I hate to say–has been the most successful club in London at least since we moved into the new stadium. (Note, I didn’t say “best.”) This is a great chance for the team to show that we are now kings of the Capital and say, “Not on our turf and not in our house.”
Go on then…