Chelsea v Arsenal
Saturday, March 22, 2014
Stamford Bridge, Fulham, London
Kickoff: 12:45 GMT/8:45 AM EDT/5:45 AM PDT
Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger were rivals. They said rude things about each other, they disliked each other and they needled each other. Yet, they respected each other. Wenger talked in glowing terms of Ferguson after the Scot announced his retirement; Ferguson has done the same ahead of Wenger's 1000th match in charge of Arsenal. They have spoken in respectful tones of each other on multiple occasions, and in the latter years, talked of the good old days of when Arsenal versus Manchester United was the rivalry in the Premier League.
Jose Mourinho and Arsène Wenger are rivals. They do not like each other. They are not respectful of each other. One does not get the sense that they will ever look back upon the good old days; instead, one gets the sense that they would very much prefer if the other didn't exist. Earlier this season, Mourinho reacted to a slight dig with astronomical force, calling Wenger a "specialist in failure", and then promptly went out of the FA Cup to Manchester City. Today, the "Special One" made a snarky comment about Arsenal's trophy drought, remphasising what a niggly bastard of a man he is.
Why is this relevant? Because Arsenal go to Stamford Bridge tomorrow in Wenger's 1000th match in charge, and are just 4 points behind of the leaders Chelsea, with a game in hand. The title race, featuring two surprises, Arsenal and Liverpool, and two favourites, Chelsea and Manchester City, is the closest and most engaging race since perhaps the 2007-08 season, of which we will not speak of again. Wenger, of course, has never beaten Mourinho, and although tomorrow would be a great time to beat that duck, Arsenal are missing all of Mssrs Walcott, Ramsey, Wilshere and Özil, and perhaps Tomáš Rosický, though the latter featured in training photos on the official website.
Chelsea, though, are also missing players following last week's 1-0 loss at Aston Villa, where a number of Chelsea players, incensed by Willian's sending off, lost the plot. Ramires was rightly sent off for a violent stamp tackle on Karim El Hamadi, and along with Willian, will miss tomorrow's match. Replacing Willian will likely be Andre Schürrle, and Nemanja Matic will replace Frank Lampard. Chelsea are the home side, but Mourinho will probably try the same tactics against Arsenal as he has done in the past: play 10 behind the ball in a deep block, and counter attack with his wide players, with Eden Hazard the obvious threat. Samuel Eto'o has excelled this season on thriving on mistakes and slim pickings in the opposition half, and Arsenal must be aware of that, especially in possession, where they were sloppy last week against Tottenham.
Last week against Tottenham, though, may be the template. Without Özil, Arsenal relied on Rosický and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to provide the counter-attacking threat. Better possession of the ball will be paramount, as will a stronger midfield structure, which means Mathieu Flamini is likely to start with Mikel Arteta playing slightly ahead, a combination of the pair that works better than the other way around. Lukas Podolski will likely drop out, with Santi Cazorla playing wide on the left, Rosický at #10 and Oxlade-Chamberlain wide on the right. The back five picks itself, with Mertesacker and Koscielny outstanding last weekend.
Wenger could choose to play Yaya Sanogo upfront, after Olivier Giroud was less than inspiring last weekend. Giroud was very effective coming off the bench against Everton and Liverpool in the Cup, and it might be better for Sanogo to try and stretch Chelsea's back four before introducing a fresher Giroud. Sanogo might also be better on the counter attack, which is surely what Arsenal will play on, as without Ramsey, Wilshere and Özil, they don't have the presence in the attacking third to control possession.
A draw, though, will not be a bad result: if Arsenal draw tomorrow and win against Swansea on Tuesday, they'll be a single point behind Chelsea, with their toughest match of the remaining fixtures out of the way.
Prediction: Steve Bould pokes Jose Mourinho in the eye; chaos ensues, during which, Andrei Arshavin appears and scores, laughing the entire time. Mourinho gets sent off, and Wenger stands there with his best troll face.