Arsenal vs. Chelsea
Barclays Premier League
The Famous Emirates Stadium, Ashburton Grove, London N5
Kickoff: Saturday 29 September 2012, 7:45 am ET
Form: ARS WWWDW | CHE LDDWW
This is always an important fixture, as it's a derby between what are now unquestionably London's two biggest clubs. But with both clubs, at this very early juncture, looking like they could be lifting trophies at some point in 2013, Chelsea's visit to Arsenal this Saturday takes on an even greater significance. For Chelsea, this is a chance to really build their resume for the year - Arsenal are the only "big team" they have played in the league this year, and they have not won in European competition, losing to Atletico Madrid in a glorified friendly and drawing at home to Juventus after leading by two goals.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have a bit of backbone already to their fixture list. They have defeated the reigning champions of France at their home ground. They won at Anfield, and though Liverpool are clearly having a(nother) down year so far, that is always a tough fixture and a quality win. And less than a week ago, Arsenal outplayed the reigning champions of England at their home ground, ending up taking a late point from Manchester City in a game that they could certainly have won. A win against Chelsea would be another signal that this Arsenal are for real, and in this league race with a chance of winning. But the job must be done, of course, and it will be a monumental task.
Neither team has been defeated in a real match this year (I included the UEFA Super Cup in their form, but as I said earlier, "glorified friendly"), and Chelsea have dropped points only once so far, in a draw against Queens Park Rangers at the middle of September. They're top of the table, one point clear of Manchester United, and are co-league-leaders in both goal differential and (fewest) goals allowed. That would be more frightening to me if A) I hadn't watched them against Atletico Madrid and Juventus, and B) they weren't co-league-leaders in those categories alongside Arsenal.
But Chelsea are a team bristling with weapons. I fear every week will be the week Fernando Torres breaks out, and I feel that his inadequacies as a player (rather than as a goalscorer) are exaggerated. Their wide areas are filled with youth and danger. We all know about Juan Mata, who maybe could be in the red-and-white and is undoubtedly a very good young player. We all know about Eden Hazard, who Arsenal also tried (and failed) to bring on. He's been one of the stars of the Premier League this year, and will likely be the source of much of Chelsea's danger. Oscar is slightly less well-known, but anyone who saw his second goal against Juventus last week will tell you that he is a Talent. Include players like Frank Lampard, as well as possible options like Daniel Sturridge and Victor Moses, and Chelsea's attack will threaten Arsenal's new defensive strategies as least as much as Manchester City's, if not more so.
Additionally Chelsea's so-far-stingy defense will feature former Gunner and noted poor driver of cars Ashley Cole, as well as other good players like Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz. John Terry is likely to play and captain the side, even after losing his duel with the FA, but if not, a possible partnership between Luiz and Gary Cahill is also quality. To watch them, it's hard to tell whether Chelsea's league defensive record is through real performance or luck on the fixture list, but if Newcastle couldn't score against them, there's at least something to them.
Arsenal's squad should be complete, or at least as complete as possible at the moment. Wojciech Szczesny is still injured and will be out at least another fortnight, but Thomas Vermaelen returns from illness and all other players available last week remain so.
Squad selection is tricky, because it's tough to know how the Capital One Cup game at midweek will affect players' fatigue levels. Though I would start him, all else being equal, "Cole's Bane" Theo Walcott played ninety minutes on Wednesday, so if he plays it's most likely to be a late cameo. Olivier Giroud also played much of the match, scoring once, but he left after about seventy minutes along with fellow scorer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so they may be less unavailable than Walcott. I think we may have seen what Arsene Wenger wants to do against big teams, though, last week, and the side may look much the same. I wonder about starting defenders, as Wenger said he'd match up his central men against the competition, and with the speed and agility of much of Chelsea's front line, there may be a change there.
Jenkinson - Koscielny - Vermaelen - Gibbs
Arteta - Diaby
Ramsey - Giroud- Podolski
While I love Per Mertesacker and think he's played superbly so far this year, he did have a shade of trouble dealing with Luis Suarez at Anfield, and I fear his positioning may not make up for the pace of Chelsea's wingers. Koscielny was fine against City, and Vermaelen's been superb all year, and I think their skill sets match up with the opponent better. I would not, however, be surprised to see one of the two start alongside the big German. Other than that, unless Walcott is the world's fittest man or Giroud is too fatigued to start, I think this is the most likely side.
Prediction: Olivier Giroud scores a hat trick in the first ten minutes. Ahead 3-0, Arsenal collapse the entire team into the midfield and pass the ball idly to one another for the next eighty minutes. Even the speed of Chelsea's young guns can't nick the ball off the feet of Cazorla and Arteta, and the rest of the match passes uneventfully. Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea.