Old Friends, New Rivalry
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has stressed that the Gunners want to get back into the title race, and that the only way they can do so is by winning their game on Sunday against current Premier League leaders Chelsea, who have a ten-point lead over Wenger's side.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Chelsea counterpart for whom Wenger has a great deal of respect, does not accept that victory for the Blues this weekend would effectively knock Arsenal out of the hunt. The Brazilian insists that English football is so competitive that a team can be 15 points behind with five games to go and still not be ruled out of contention.
Most pundits favour the Blues to beat the under-fire Gunners - and in turn many fans and neutrals feel that if Chelsea do manage to open up a 13-point gap on their London rivals before the start of December, Arsenal might as well start concentrating on the cups.
Wenger has admitted that head-to-head confrontations with fellow 'Big Four' members become critical when you are as far off the pace as Arsenal find themselves. But Scolari acknowledges that Wenger's team play good football, and feels it will be a difficult game for Chelsea to win, although he is looking forward to pitting his wits against his old friend, who was coaching with him in Japan in the mid-1990s.
Scolari said this week of Wenger: "I like him as a coach. If I chose five coaches in the world as the best, he'd be one of the five.
"I watched their game against Manchester United and it was one of the best games in the Premier League. This game against Chelsea will be like that as well."
Where’s The Consistency?
There are parallels with that Arsenal-United game three weekends ago. The scenario was similar in that the Gunners were about to entertain the champions on the back of five dropped points in their previous two League games - a draw against Tottenham and a defeat at Stoke. Arsenal responded by beating United 2-1 at the Emirates in a classic, and were hailed as having turned a corner.
But it proved to be a false dawn, as they went to be well-beaten in their next two League games, at home to Aston Villa and away to Manchester City, failing to score in either contest. Those two matches were sandwiched between cup victories: the young Gunners beat Wigan 3-0 in the Carling Cup before the seniors came back in and lost to Villa; and a patched-up team beat Dynamo Kiev in midweek to clinch Arsenal's progress into the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the sixth season running.
Chelsea's results over the same period were not entirely convincing: they went of the Carling Cup at home to Championship side Burnley on penalties, had a comfortable 3-0 win at West Bromwich and were then held to draws by Newcastle United at home and Bordeaux away.
Nevertheless, Chelsea's Premier League form is fairly impressive: they are unbeaten in their last five league games, in which they have not conceded a single goal. Their last defeat did, though, come at Stamford Bridge against Liverpool - and ended their remarkable 86-match unbeaten League run at home. Their previous home defeat had been in February 2004 - and was inflicted by the Gunners on their way to title.
However, since losing to Liverpool, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side have netted 13 goals in their five subsequent League games, so Arsenal will be facing a near-watertight defence and a potent attack, on Chelsea's own patch. Formidable? Yes - Wenger's team have managed just one win in their last five League matches, though it was against United. And their last win at the Bridge was that 2-1 success back in 2004, when Claudio Ranieri was in charge of Chelsea and the likes of Patrick Vieira, who scored Arsenal's first goal, was striding imperiously through the midfield.
The Gunners were unbeaten in the League in that 2003-04, and only lost three times last season, when they finished third; but already they've suffered five defeats in the current campaign, with last weekend's 3-0 defeat at Manchester City particularly demoralising, especially in the wake of the William Gallas affair. But at least Arsenal rediscovered the winning touch by beating Dynamo Kiev last Tuesday, even if it did take a goal from Nicklas Bendtner three minutes from time to deliver victory.
Chelsea, who stuttered last weekend as Newcastle held them to a draw, failed to bounce back convincingly in Europe on Wednesday when Bordeaux equalised to deny them three points in Group A of the Champions League. It was a fraught night for the Blues in France: the draw saw them slip to second place and means they must now beat Cluj in their final group match to be sure of reaching the knock-out stages of a competition they desperately want to win. To compound their frustration, they had midfielder Frank Lampard sent off for two bookable offences. In contrast the Gunners, under the new on-pitch leadership of Cesc Fabregas, booked their place in the knock-out stages of the tournament.
Sunday's game will pit Arsenal against the team with the strongest attack and the tightest defence in the Premier League - reflected in Chelsea's goal difference of plus-28. Arsenal's is only plus-seven, with the Gunners having conceded 18 goals already compared with Chelsea's four. Indeed, the Blues have kept clean sheets in 14 of the last 21 Premier League games, and conceded just one goal in each of the other seven. They are also the only professional team in England not to have conceded a goal in the second-half of a league game this season - and they boast the best Premier League record in calendar year 2008, having won 23 matches, drawn eight and lost one, collecting 77 points from their 32 games.
Yet although Arsenal's recent record against the Blues is not brilliant - one win in 12 games in all competitions and no wins at the Bridge for four years - Chelsea have lost more games (15), conceded more goals (47) and dropped more points (67) against Arsenal than against any other club in the Premier League.
26 Nov (Champions League) v Bordeaux (A) DREW 1-1
22 Nov (Premier League) v Newcastle (H) DREW 0-0
15 Nov (Premier League) v West Brom (A) WON 3-0
12 Nov (Carling Cup) v Burnley (H) DREW 1-1 (lost 4-5 on penalties)
09 Nov (Premier League) v Blackburn (A) WON 2-0
04 Nov (Champions League) v Roma (A) LOST 1-3
25 Nov (Champions League) v Dynamo Kiev (H) WON 1-0
22 Nov (Premier League) v Man City (A) LOST 0-3
15 Nov (Premier League) v Aston Villa (H) LOST 0-2
11 Nov (Carling Cup) v Wigan (H) WON 3-0
08 Nov (Premier League) v Man Utd (H) WON 2-1
05 Nov (Champions League) v Fenerbahce (H) DREW 0-0
Luiz Felipe Scolari will be without striker Didier Drogba, serving a suspension following his Carling Cup coin-throwing incident.
Portugal defender Ricardo Carvalho could return from a knee injury on Sunday, in which case Scolari would have relegate one of his deputies - Branislav Ivanovic or Alex - to the substitutes' bench.
Michael Essien (knee), Juliano Belletti (ankle) and Franco di Santo (hamstring) are all unavailable, and Joe Cole could miss out after injuring an ankle against Bordeaux.
Squad: Cech, Cudicini, Hilario, Bosingwa, Ferreira, Alex, Terry, Ivanovic, Bridge, A Cole, Lampard, Deco, Ballack, Obi, Kalou, Malouda, Anelka, Sinclair, Stoch, J Cole.
Last Starting XI (v Bordeaux): Cech, Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Ashley Cole, Mikel, Joe Cole (Ferreira 85), Ballack, Lampard, Malouda, Anelka (Drogba 63).
Subs Not Used: Cudicini, Bridge, Kalou, Alex, Stoch.
There was some good news on Friday for Arsenal in terms of players recovering from injury, with striker Emmanuel Adebayor, midfielder Samir Nasri and right-back Bacary Sagna all passed fit to play after missing recent games. But Theo Walcott (shoulder), Eduardo da Silva (broken leg) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) remain sidelined, while Abou Diaby (abdominal strain), Kolo Toure (calf) and Emmanuel Eboue (knee) miss out.
Squad: Almunia, Sagna, Silvestre, Gallas, Clichy, Nasri, Denilson, Fabregas, Vela, van Persie, Adebayor, Fabianski, Song, Djourou, Ramsey, Bendtner, Gibbs, Hoyte, Wilshere.
Last Starting XI (v Dynamo Kiev): Almunia, Djourou, Gallas, Silvestre, Clichy, Denilson, Fabregas, Song Billong, Ramsey (Bendtner 68), Vela (Wilshere 77), Van Persie.
Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Gibbs, Hoyte, Merida, Simpson.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nicolas Anelka, 29, has scored eight goals in his last five Premier League appearances and is the top-scoring Premier League player, having netted 14 goals in all competitions for the Blues. He leads the way in the race for the Barclays Golden Boot with 12 Premier League goals, and needs just two more to reach the milestone of 100 Premier League goals (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bolton and Chelsea). Anelka will be facing his former club, for whom he made 90 appearances (65 in the League) and scored 28 goals (23 league) between March 1997 and August 1999. He recently said he left the Gunners (to join Real Madrid) in 1999 just to spite the Arsenal fans, whom he felt didn't value him highly enough. The will no doubt let him know what they think of that, while he would love nothing better than to score against the club that gave him his break in English football.
Arsene Wenger replaced Anelka with Thierry Henry, who went on to become the club's all-time top scorer. Robin van Persie is one of the players seeking to assume Henry's mantle, and if he lines up at kick-off on Sunday it will be his 100th start for the Gunners. The Dutchman recently scored his 50th goal for the club so his strike rate is not at all bad. He will be a threat to Chelsea if they concede any free-kicks within firing range. But he will need to keep his temper in check as he can be hot-headed: he recently completed a three-match ban following a rush of blood to the head at Stoke. However, if Van Persie focuses on the football, he could be a key man for Arsenal.
Chelsea have been much the more consistent side this season, as their relative League positions reflect; but neither side has been particularly impressive over the last half-dozen matches, with Chelsea uncharacteristically failing to win matches they were expected to. On the other hand Arsenal's form has blown hot and cold all season, although did rise to the occasion against Manchester United recently.
It promises to be an intriguing battle of tactics between the two managers, but both will probably give rein to their attacking instincts. Chelsea will start as favourites, but they are without Didier Drogba, who has been a persistent thorn in Arsenal's side with an excellent scoring record against the Gunners. The Blues may find Arsenal fired up and determined, and it would not be a huge surprise if honours were even after 90 minutes.
Chelsea 1-1 Arsenal
Graham Lister, Goal.com