The Premier League’s big game this weekend sees runaway leaders Chelsea host Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, knowing a win over Arsene Wenger’s side would push them another decisive step toward the title.
Will Antonio Conte’s side keep marching on or can the Gunners inflict a defeat similar to the 3-0 pasting they delivered in September?
Mark Worrall: Without a shadow of doubt. In fact, they limped out of it earlier this week when losing 2-1 at home to Watford. What was it Wenger said after that defeat? Oh yeah: “We were not mentally prepared.”
Can you imagine Conte not having Chelsea mentally prepared for a game?
To be in with a chance of winning the title race, you have to have a manager who can instill confidence and belief in his players: a manager like Conte. A Blues victory will open the gap between these two to 12 points, and while it would remain nine if the game ended in a draw, Wenger stopped working miracles for Arsenal years ago.
James McNicholas: Many would say they’re out of it already. Even if Arsenal somehow win this match, it will still be difficult to overturn a six-point deficit, especially when you consider the Gunners still need to travel to the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham.
Wenger will be hoping a victory can instigate a Chelsea wobble, but that feels incredibly optimistic. Conte’s side appear to be on a relentless march towards the Premier League title. Anything less than an Arsenal win certainly hammer the final nail into the coffin of their title challenge and leave the Gunners in an agonisingly familiar battle for fourth with the two Manchester clubs.
MW: It was the catalyst for Conte to switch to the 3-4-3 formation with which he enjoyed stellar success in Italy. The Blues subsequently went on a 13-game winning streak that propelled them from 10th to top of the league, bypassing Arsenal along the way. They haven’t looked back since.
JM: It was certainly critical for Chelsea. After all, it was at half time in this fixture that Conte switched to the back three that has served him so well from that point on.
When Arsenal comfortably swept Chelsea aside, there was real cause for encouragement at the Emirates. However, Arsenal have not been able to sustain that level of performance. The absence of Santi Cazorla has certainly been a big factor — without him, Arsenal have struggled to find a cohesive midfield. The performance of Alexis Sanchez at centre-forward was also key to dismantling the Chelsea defence, but in recent weeks, the Chilean has been moved back to the flank.
In the course of that 3-0 fixture back in September, both Arsenal and Chelsea seemed to find their best XI. The difference is that Chelsea have managed to keep theirs together.
MW: Sanchez has the ability and prowess to make life difficult for Chelsea. Arsenal are far from a one-man team, but this season in the league, they seem over-reliant on him for goals and assists. The Blues’ three-man backline, marshaled by skipper Gary Cahill, are a resolute proposition these days, and along with N’Golo Kante, who will patrol the space in front of them, they’ll be tasked with stopping Sanchez from getting into the game.
With Sanchez neutralised, it’s difficult to see Arsenal finding a way through to goal, which paves the way for Conte’s side to win, provided they make the most of the chances that will undoubtedly come their way.
JM: If Arsenal are to stand any chance of coming away from the Bridge with all three points, they’ll need something special from an unfamiliar midfield duo. A calf injury to Aaron Ramsey means Wenger has no choice but to deploy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain alongside Francis Coquelin. They’ve barely played together before, and they face a huge test against the powerful pair of Nemanja Matic and Kante.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was outstanding in a central role in the FA Cup win over Southampton, but this is a much greater task. He and Coquelin will have to be at their very best if Arsenal are to get a foothold in the game.
MW: A 3-4-3 with Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Walcott, Welbeck; Matic, Kante; Sanchez, Hazard, Costa.
Only three Arsenal men would make my combined team. Sanchez is the obvious choice to partner Eden Hazard behind Diego Costa, while wild-card choices Walcott and Welbeck could be devastating if deployed as wing-backs. (Hopefully Wenger doesn’t read this and get any clever ideas before Saturday!)
JM: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Laurent Koscielny, Luiz; Bellerin, Kante, Matic, Marcos Alonso; Sanchez, Costa, Hazard
It had to be the 3-4-3 system that has seen Chelsea dominate the league this season; Bellerin would be a perfect fit in that right wing-back spot.
MW: Costa. He will have been left bitterly frustrated by his midweek penalty miss at Liverpool that potentially cost Chelsea victory, and he will seek to make amends by rippling the Arsenal net from open play.
Costa is a reformed character under Conte, but make no mistake: He will still relish locking horns with Arsenal centre-back Koscielny. He has the pace and power to win this tussle without resorting to the type of skullduggery that used to blight his game. With Pedro and Hazard likely to be providing the ammunition, Costa can take full advantage of Arsenal’s shaky defence and fire Chelsea to victory.
JM: Arsenal need Sanchez to be their inspiration once again. The Chilean was in breathtaking form in the reverse fixture, and he will need to be at his electric best if Arsenal are to pull off a huge victory. If it’s a tight game, the mercurial match winner could prove to be the difference-maker.
MW: 2-0 Chelsea. A lot has happened since the Blues capitulated 3-0 at the Emirates back in September. That result was the catalyst for manager Conte to mastermind a stratospheric revival at Stamford Bridge, and the Italian will view this game not only as an opportunity to gain revenge for that humbling defeat but also to terminate any faint hopes Arsenal may have of challenging Chelsea for the title.
JM: 2-1 Chelsea. Wouldn’t it be just typical Arsenal to get some sort of result at Stamford Bridge immediately off the back of Tuesday night’s disappointment against Watford? Perhaps. However, Wenger’s team will be up against a side desperate for revenge.