Whether it’s still a ‘Big Four’ now or a ‘Big Five or Six’, there’s no doubt that both Chelsea and Arsenal are members of it, and that their meetings are among the Premier League’s top attractions. Sunday afternoon’s clash has special significance because the two adversaries each suffered an unexpected set-back last weekend – then got back on track with impressive midweek Champions League victories.
Leaders Chelsea failed their first real test in the Premier League season when they went down 1-0 at Eastlands to Manchester City last Saturday lunchtime. That result meant Arsenal kicked off at home to West Bromwich Albion knowing a win would take them to within a point of the Blues.
But they fluffed their lines, never looking like beating the inspired Baggies until the introduction of Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky, but by then it was too late, and following the 3-2 defeat, Arsene Wenger had to admit he didn’t recognise his team on the day.
Wenger, who marked 14 years in charge of Arsenal on Friday, would have been more familiar with the performance the Gunners produced in beating Partizan 3-1 in Belgrade on Tuesday. On the same night, Chelsea were convincing 2-0 winners against French champions Marseille. So both Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti – who will be in the dugout on Sunday despite the death of his father this week – go into this match with their respective teams top of the groups with maximum points in the Champions League.
History Doesn't Win Matches, Does It?
Domestically, Chelsea are four points ahead of third-placed Arsenal – and they are also enjoying a welcome reversal of fortune against the Gunners. Arsenal were unbeaten in 17 matches against the Blues until Claudio Ranieri’s side won the second leg of a Champions League quarter-final at Highbury in April 2004.
Since then, of the 15 matches between the two teams, Wenger has been able to celebrate just two victories, pitting his wits against Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Ancelotti. Moreover, they’ve been emphatically beaten – 2-1 (Wembley, FA Cup semi-final), 4-1 (h), 3-0 (h) and 2-0 (a) – in each of the last four meetings.
So while recent history is certainly running in Chelsea’s favour, on Friday Wenger pointed out with impeccable logic that history doesn’t win football matches. The corollary of that observation is that it can - if you don’t learn from it.
And Arsenal fans will be anxiously looking for evidence that their team has learned from their recent crushingly disappointing games against Chelsea. If not, we can expect the Gunners to enjoy the bulk of the possession at the Bridge without penetrating Ancelotti’s defence. And for Chelsea – and Didier Drogba in particular – to be devastatingly effective on the counter and power their way to three more points.
The popular conception is that physically strong, experienced Chelsea will bully the intricate but lightweight Gunners into submission. So Wenger needs to have come up with a new strategy – firstly of scoring against John Terry and Co., and secondly of pressing home the advantage by closing out the game from a winning position. They know they can do it – they came from behind to win at Stamford Bridge two years ago when Robin van Persie scored twice after Johan Djourou had put through his own goal.
But the challenge is to beat them again – and Van Persie is one of a number of influential Gunners unavailable to Wenger, though Ancelotti also has a couple of high-profile absentees.
Carlo Ancelotti will take charge of the team on Sunday despite the death of his father earlier in the week and his subsequent return to Italy.
Striker Didier Drogba is available again after missing the win against Marseille through suspension, and will probably replace Gael Kakuta.
Yossi Benayoun (calf), Jose Bosingwa (knee), Salomon Kalou (thigh) and Frank Lampard (groin) are all unavailable through injury.
Possible Starting XI: Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, Cole; Essien, Mikel, Ramires, Malouda; Anelka, Drogba.
Arsene Wenger is still without captain Cesc Fabregas, who is suffering from the hamstring injury he sustained scoring for Arsenal against Sunderland. That means Jack Wilshere is likely to provide the main creative inspiration. Left-back Kieran Gibbs is sidelined with a calf injury, so Gael Clichy should start.
Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia has an elbow injury, giving Lukasz Fabianski another opportunity to prove his credentials.
Central defender Thomas Vermaelen remains out injured (Achilles tendon), but Abou Diaby should be fit.
Emmanuel Frimpong (knee), Aaron Ramsey (broken leg), Robin van Persie (ankle), Theo Walcott (ankle) and Nicklas Bendner (groin) are all still unavailable.
Possible Starting XI: Fabianski; Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Clichy; Denilson, Song, Wilshere; Nasri, Chamakh, Arshavin.