The visit of Jose Mourinho's men offers the chance for the resurgent Gunners to lay down a marker ahead of a crucial run of games and step closer to ending their trophy droughtCOMMENT
By Liam Twomey
After all the talk of poor scheduling, squad rotation and a once bitter managerial rivalry cooled, Arsenal’s Capital One Cup clash with Chelsea could be forgiven for lacking in spectacle.
Nothing, though, can dull the significance. No matter how ill-timed and low down the list of wider priorities this game is deemed to be, both Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho will recognise there is considerably more than psychological spoils or London bragging rights at stake.
Amid all the name changes over the past decade, the League Cup has forged and maintained a unique identity, and winning it can exert a curiously transformative influence on a team’s fortunes.
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For big players and big teams, however, success invariably leads to success, and trophies to trophies. Winning can become as powerful a habit as losing. Few know this better than Mourinho, who used that 3-2 extra-time victory over Liverpool in February 2005 as a springboard to Chelsea’s first league title for 50 years – and another one the following season. For the Blues, after four barren seasons there was no such thing as a worthless trophy. For Mourinho there never is.
Arsenal’s drought has been twice as long, and the journey littered with painful defeats and self-inflicted wounds. After 17 years the League Cup remains the only domestic honour Wenger has never won – fitting too, considering it has provided the stage for many of his lowest moments.
In 2007 a youthful Gunners side swaggered to the final and outplayed a full strength Chelsea for most of the first half – with Theo Walcott scoring his first goal for the club – only to be outmuscled and outwitted by enduring nemesis Didier Drogba. In 2011, the farcical nature of Wembley defeat to Birmingham sank the entire club into a lingering gloom which helped convince Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Robin van Persie that their ambitions would be better served elsewhere.
At other times, humiliating losses to Burnley and Bradford served as exclamation marks for both the numerous mini-crises Wenger endured and the overarching decline he appeared to be managing until this summer, when a transfer record was smashed, a superstar arrived and everything changed. What a pity, then, that Mesut Ozil is unlikely to play.
Over the years Wenger’s stubborn regard for the League Cup as a development tournament for his young jewels, while admirable, has too often left Arsenal reaching for the trophy with only one hand against more experienced opponents, the other tied firmly behind the back.
It is time to show he is serious about decorating the Emirates Stadium trophy room and, with crucial matches against Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and United to come in the next fortnight, the message could not be timelier. Win and go from strength to strength. Lose momentum now and Arsenal’s season could have a starkly different complexion in a month’s time.
Heavy rotation against Chelsea, particularly with the Gunners’ current injury problems, would be nothing short of folly. Mourinho has already revealed he will make 11 changes from the side which beat Manchester City on Sunday, but the team he picks will still cost more than almost any other in England.
It will also be full of players determined to impress against respected opposition. The likes of Juan Mata, Willian and Kevin De Bruyne would be prized possessions at most other clubs in Europe, yet find themselves out of favour at Stamford Bridge in a World Cup year. Starring in a win over Arsenal would not ensure a revival, but they will rightly assume it cannot hurt their chances.
Finally, for all his bluster about poor scheduling, Mourinho will be fully focused on claiming a second major scalp in a week, and moving a step closer to a first trophy since his return to Stamford Bridge. His new team cannot yet boast the same aura of invincibility his old one gave off, but the confidence borne of lifting silverware is always a key ingredient in his recipe for success.
Of course, victory on Tuesday will not automatically yield a trophy. Wenger and Mourinho will know that United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and others should yet have plenty to say about that. But it would be a very good start, a very big obstacle removed and, ultimately, a means to a very enticing end.
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