Saturday will see the latest edition of one of the most viciously contested rivalries of modern times, with Chelsea hosting Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, this time amid a backdrop so full of external drama and intrigue we might as well have a weigh-in before kick-off.
Arsene Wenger will arrive at the Bridge for his 1000th game in charge this weekend, and it will be a crucially important fixture for both sides, with the ‘specialist in failure’ angling to get the better of his outspoken Portuguese nemesis for the very first time, in a pivotal 90 minutes in the Premier League title race.
A win for Chelsea will see them keep momentum at the top of the league, while dealing a crashing blow to Arsenal’s title bid in one fell swoop. But considering the high stakes, Wenger’s side will come out guns blazing, as their diminishing push for a first league title in a decade further turns the animal into a desperate beast.
Despite the high stakes, Chelsea fans are fully expecting three points from their side, and why wouldn’t they, considering the ludicrous home record enjoyed under their machiavellian messiah, Jose Mourinho, let alone the stranglehold he has over Wenger.
The unbeaten record is now 75 games and counting for the Special One at ‘Castle Stamford’, and while we all know that one day this run will come to an end, considering the tactical discipline and counter-attacking vim displayed once more in the win against Galatasaray on Tuesday, Chelsea’s superb big-game form will take some fraying.
Back in 2011, under Andre Villas-Boas, who is set to assault Russian club Zenit with his presence from next season, Chelsea were convincingly taken apart by a rampant Gunners, which will give their fans a whole lot to be optimistic about this weekend; but in comparison to the tactics of three years ago, a Mourinho-constructed Chelsea is about as different as how a banana differs from a shotgun, for several reasons.
Nemanja Matic’s arrival in West London plugged a subtle, yet debilitating gap in midfield, with the Serbian instilling a power in the centre not seen since the days of Michael Ballack and an injury-free Michael Essien. The win at the Etihad last month came only a few weeks into Matic’s second stint at the Blues, and alongside the rampaging David Luiz, Chelsea bossed the midfield from start to finish, freeing up endless attacking opportunities for the front four.
While Luiz has fallen off the radar since that memorable evening, I am a strong advocate for the reintroduction of the Brazilian in the midfield. Ramires suspended, and Frank Lampard afforded a nostalgic 90 minutes against a Didier Drogba-led Galatasaray midweek, Luiz must surely be given the chance to replicate the City performance alongside the tank, Matic.
The Chelsea defence has been inspired of late, with Mourinho’s personal preference for containment and quick counter-attacking proving to be key foundations for the Blues this season. While his strikers may be misfiring, the back line, who have conceded the least amount of goals this season in the top flight (23 from 30 games) have seen the Blues ascend to the very summit of the Premier League.
Statistically, the omens are bad for Arsenal, with the Gunners having failed to win any of their last 11 matches against Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City. They have also failed to score a goal against the Blues in the other two games between the pair this season (0-0, 0-2).
If Chelsea do come out on top, it will leave the Gunners seven points off the pace, albeit with a game in hand. While not out of it on that alone, defeat against Manchester City just a few weeks later would put paid to their title aspirations.
Ever one to stir things up during the preview and buildup, Mourinho couldn’t resist sending another poisoned barb in the way of his French counterpart.
“The tribute is to say we would love to have the same privilege with our clubs,”
“I admire Wenger and I admire Arsenal, a club that stands by their manager in bad moments – of which there were quite a lot.”
A loss to Mourinho in Wenger’s century match could be psychologically crippling for the currently injury hit Gunners, let alone a terrifically encouraging return to league form for Chelsea.
The odds seem to be heavily in Jose’s favour, but considering the decidedly unpredictable Premier League season so far, the Blues would do well to be wary of their London rivals, who will know that this one game may well define their stalwart manager’s career, encapsulating a thousand separate encounters into a 90 pivotal minutes.