Barely sixty hours after the final whistle blew on Chelsea’s heroic, energy-sapping victory against Barcelona, a trip to the Emirates awaits to take on third-placed Arsenal in yet another game of a huge magnitude. Following consecutive morale-boosting victories, against Tottenham in the Semi Final of the FA Cup and the Catalans in the Semi Final of the Champions League, it is back to the grind of the league for the Blues – a competition in which they haven’t looked so impressive in recent weeks.
Indeed in their last five games in the Premier League Chelsea have recorded only two wins – that memorable 4-2 victory at Villa Park in March courtesy of a brace of late goals and a fortunate 2-1 win against Wigan when Juan Mata’s 92nd minute intervention proved decisive. Either side of those victories we have witnessed disappointing derby draws against Spurs and Fulham and a late collapse at Manchester City which resulted in a 2-1 reverse. Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea have picked up eleven points from a possible eighteen in the league since he has taken over, form which over the course of a season would probably be enough to earn fourth spot – at this late stage of the campaign, however, the points-per-game ratio must improve if Chelsea are to sneak into next season’s Champions League.
It could reasonably be argued that Chelsea’s league form has suffered as a result of their continued progression in the FA Cup and Champions League. Since taking over di Matteo’s Chelsea have played thirteen games in 44 days – Arsenal, by contrast, have played only seven games in six weeks. Squad rotation is essential, therefore, and fortunately for the Blues numbers in the treatment room continue to be low, allowing di Matteo the chance to utilize players who didn’t feature on Wednesday. With Branislav Ivanovic suspended expect Jose Bosingwa to return at right-back, while Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Salomon Kalou, Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres could all feasibly start with Tuesday’s huge second leg in Barcelona in mind. Drogba’s terrific return to form when it matters most and his hugely impressive record against Arsenal will count for nothing as he is injured – Torres, surely a frustrated spectator at Wembley (until he entered the fray) and at the Bridge, will have a chance to show his worth against an Arsenal side beaten by Wigan at the Emirates on Monday night. David Luiz is once again ruled out.
Mikel Arteta, so key in recent weeks for the Gunners, was off the pitch for both of Wigan’s goals that night with an injury which will keep him out for the rest of the season. Yossi Benayoun, also fundamental to Arsenal’s superb return to form since the famous 5-2 comeback win against Spurs in early March, is ineligible as part of his loan deal with Chelsea. It will be interesting to see if he is part of the Blues’ plans this summer. Elsewhere Laurent Koscielny returns from suspension and will probably feature with the prolific Thomas Vermaelen at the heart of Arsenal’s defence. Exciting star of the future Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could well start on the left of midfield and will no doubt test whoever fills in for Ivanovic. Robin van Persie, a shoe-in as the league’s player of the season, has endured something of a goal drought by his high standards – he has only one penalty to his name in six games. Chelsea fans need only cast their minds back to October to remember how good he can be at his best, with his hat-trick that day the key behind Arsenal’s dramatic 5-3 win at the Bridge.
With Tottenham at QPR in the day’s late kick-off, and Newcastle hosting Stoke at 3pm, a defeat at the Emirates coupled with unfavourable results elsewhere could all but end Chelsea’s hopes of finishing fourth, meaning only victory in the Champions League would earn the Blues the right to compete in Europe’s top competition next season. With the team now surely relying on adrenaline to get them through this dramatic end of the season, di Matteo must be hoping his troops haven’t peaked too soon in the quest for success on three fronts. Tomorrow’s encounter will go a long way to deciding where Chelsea finish in the league table at the end of the season, and thus for now Tuesday’s game in the Nou Camp must be put to one side. Another mentally and physically draining ninety minutes awaits the Blues.