Chelsea vs. Arsenal: match preview

Chelsea vs. Arsenal
Kickoff: 745 AM EDT
Stamford Bridge, Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, London
TV Coverage: ESPN 2, ESPN3.com
Form: Chelsea WWWLW Arsenal LWWWW
SBN Chelsea perspective: We Ain't Got No History

Arsenal, fresh off seven wins from their past eight, face their biggest challenge since going to Old Trafford tomorrow when they will kick off against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea sit third in the league with 19 points from nine matches; Arsenal are 7th with 13 points. Didier Drogba is unavailable for Chelsea through suspension. I am unavailable for Arsenal due to not being a professional footballer.

Thomas Vermaelen is a possible returnee for Arsenal, as he suffered merely from cramp in the Carling Cup game against Bolton on Tuesday. The others missing for Arsenal are the usual: Bacary Sagna, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, and Jack Wilshere. Michael Essien is out for Chelsea, but Ramires is expected to return and play.

Both Chelsea and Arsenal have a tendency to allow goals from set pieces this year, but Chelsea have had more luck defending otherwise, as Carefree Chronicles explains in this post. Arsenal haven't had as much success with their high defensive line or pressing games this year as they have in the past; in fact, one could say that their lack of good pressing beyond the final third has led to a lot of problems this year in particular, as it has allowed playmakers on the opponent plenty of time to pick out passes (think of van der Vaart's goal for Spurs, for instance). If Arsenal can tighten that up and limit Chelsea's chances from set pieces, they will do much better. The lack of Drogba, a player whom Arsenal haven't been able to contain in the past, may help them, although Fernando Torres is no slouch, and his quickness, along with that of Daniel Sturridge, may prove troublesome for the slower Per Mertesacker in the middle.

Last year, Arsenal were able to defeat Chelsea 3-1 at the Emirates largely through dogged pressing in the midfield and a lethal counterattacking style. This year, Arsenal's pressing is, well, see above, and their counterattack hasn't exactly taken the breath away, so another lighting-strike 3-1 probably isn't on the cards. An Arsenal midfield of Song, Arteta, and Ramsey, if that's what Wenger rolls with, tends to instinctively slow play down. Tuesday's Carling Cup match saw Arshavin behind the striker, and he offers more risky, but more incisive, passing, should Wenger start him. Theo Walcott and Gervinho will probably start on the flanks, though, and Robin van Persie is a lead-pipe lock at striker. The defense is a bit more intriguing; the return of Thomas Vermaelen offers help at center back, but Wenger could opt to continue with the Koscielny-Mertesacker pairing there. More likely, perhaps, is for him to move Koscielny to right back. Andre Santos looks a sure thing at left back again.

Overall, it's a match that will be Arsenal's toughest in some time (not that Marseille or Stoke were total slouches).

Lineup predictions:

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos; Song, Arteta; Gervinho, Ramsey, Walcott; van Persie.

Chelsea (4-3-3) (as predicted by Graham): Petr Cech; Ashley Cole, John Terry, Alex, Jose Bosingwa; John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard, Ramires*; Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, Daniel Sturridge.

Match prediction: Arsenal open the match by immediately subbing off Per Mertesacker for Andrei Arshavin, debuting their new 3-4-3 formation. Szczesny plays as a sweeper and attempts a storming run through midfield half an hour into the match, launching a shot from 50 yards that Petr Cech misses entirely because he's laughing so much, but it only rattles the crossbar. The game remains miraculously deadlocked until the 89th minute, when Ryo Miyaichi and Juan Mata each score goals on through balls from Alex Song (don't ask), and the match ends 1-1 as Gunnersaurus invades the pitch in a Smart Car, having raced over from Islington on a water taxi disguised as David Cameron.

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