London will come to a standstill on Saturday afternoon when two of the city's greatest footballing powers go head-to-head at Stamford Bridge. Historically, this clash has always had bearing on deciding the toppers of the Premier League table and Saturday's fixture will be no different, with four other rivals too having their eyes on this clash.
The Blues enter the game with a nine-point lead over the Gunners, a scenario which was quite unimaginable when Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 earlier in the season in September. Ever since then, Antonio Conte’s men have seen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes and have gone from strength to strength, winning fifteen of their seventeen games after that.
With another fifteen matches to play, a Chelsea win on Saturday is certain to put to bed any hopes of Arsenal ending their 13-year wait for the Premier League trophy. In addition, with other rivals having fairly straightforward games on paper, it will be crucial for both teams to add pressure on them. So there's plenty of incentive for Conte's men to go for a win even if a draw does little harm to their title quest.
On the other hand, Arsenal would have had a real chance of getting right into the mix had they not lost to Watford at home on Tuesday, but a win at Stamford Bridge — which would be their first since that crazy 5-3 win in 2011 — would earn them the right to keep dreaming of an unlikely title triumph in May. A win for Arsenal would also strengthen their bid to finish in the top four for yet another season.
The Gunners haven't done the double over their London rivals since 2004, which was incidentally the last time they became Premier League champions. A win on Saturday would enhance hopes of a repeat, but it will be easier said than done against a machine-like Chelsea side under Conte.
The Blues have had the edge over the Gunners in recent times, especially at Stamford Bridge, where they have won the last four encounters between the sides. Arsene Wenger's men have managed to find the net just once in these games, while Chelsea have breached the Arsenal rearguard 12 times.
In the last seven games between the two London rivals, Arsenal have scored just three goals, all of which came in the win at the Emirates stadium earlier this season. The Blues, on the other hand, have netted 13 times in those games. So the odds appear heavily stacked against Arsenal and their patchy form will only make it more difficult.
Chelsea however, have not been the same force while facing the top six teams and have kept just one clean sheet in the seven games against the top sides. But their opponents on Saturday, who have a reputation of falling short against the big boys in the league, have also just managed one shut-out in their five games against these sides.
The past though only allows us to speculate and it will be the proceedings on the pitch at Stamford Bridge on Saturday that will decide the destiny of the three points. With a number of high profile names on both sides, one can't help but feel it will be one individual performance that could prove to be pivotal in deciding which way the games goes.
More so than any other top-six game, this Chelsea-Arsenal clash pits some of the top most performers of the league this season against one another. So apart from three points, this clash could go some way in determining who scoops the Player of the Year and the Golden Boot award for the 2016/17 season.
Speaking of that award, we can't look beyond two names in particular — Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez. As it stands, the award, in addition to the Golden Boot, will go to one of the two and the game on Saturday could have a huge influence.
While Chelsea are expected to retain the same shape and line-up that has gotten them to the top position, Arsenal's eleven has been subject to plenty of discussion in the build-up to the clash. Wenger was heavily criticised for his team selection against Watford on Tuesday and he is expected to change a bit from that ill-fated night.
There is enough reason to believe that Sanchez may start upfront in a more fluid front four for the Gunners, a system that has brought success to the north-London club this season. It will mean Olivier Giroud drops to the bench and the Chilean will be flanked by Alex Iwobi and possibly Theo Walcott, who has a particularly good record against the Blues and also scored the Gunners' last goal at the ground.
Whoever takes the field for Arsenal in their forward line, will come up against an almost indomitable back three of Chelsea comprising of David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill. Luiz has been a revelation since returning to Chelsea from Paris Saint-Germain and has hardly put a foot wrong this season.
The Brazilian, who is yet another candidate for the Player of the Year, could be involved in a straight battle with Sanchez. The former Barcelona forward will present Luiz with his toughest test in that position till date. The Chilean often drops deep and moves all along the width of the pitch during the game to create space for the likes of Walcott, Iwobi, Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chmaberlain, who make the runs behind the opposition defence from midfield.
With Ozil's ability to pick a pass, the Gunners become a force to reckon with. So it will be very difficult to mark Sanchez and he could drag Luiz out of his position at times, creating a gap in that Chelsea defence. But the Blues will have two more defenders to cope with the runs of the Arsenal players, even if one of them is dragged out of position, thanks to the compact nature of their back three. That means Wenger's men will have to be very precise with their final ball, the striker's first touch and the finish. Even a little lapse will allow that rearguard to mop up.
In the last month, the Blues defence has appeared vulnerable at defending crosses. Teams have exploited the space between the center back and wing backs, especially between Azpilicueta and Victor Moses, and had success. The latter not being a natural defender has been found wanting at times in these scenarios. Hence, including Giroud in the line-up could serve the Gunners well.
The pace of Sanchez and Walcott would also keep Chelsea's wing backs wary and automatically prevent them from creating an overload at the other end, which Chelsea have so typically managed this season.
The Chilean, if he plays on the wings, would fancy his chances playing on the right side, attacking Marcos Alonso and Cahill who are comparatively the weaker links in the Chelsea defence. On the left, he may find it more difficult against Azpilicueta, who is perhaps the best one-on-one defender in the league.
So Sanchez against Chelsea's famed back three will be a contest to watch out for, and one that could make the difference.
The only problem playing with Giroud up front is that the Gunners have never been very comfortable playing with a target mat in recent years and despite the Chelsea's weakness, they may struggle to make the most of it.
At the other end, there is a battle of similar magnitude on the cards, although of a different type. Costa has been leading the Blues charge with fifteen goals this season and has always relished the prospect of facing Arsenal in his time in the Premier League. He has scored twice against the north-London side and was involved in Gabriel Paulista's sending off last season, which paved way for a 2-0 victory for the Blues.
The Spanish striker though has been a subdued figure compared to last season and has opted for his football to do the talking, but his edgy character will still test the patience of the Arsenal back line. Keeping Gabriel out of the line-up would help Gunners not just avoid unnecessary fracas, but also help them defend better against their wing backs with Hector Bellerin in the side.
Arsenal's center-back pairing of Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny have lost just one game playing together, but that defeat came earlier this week at the Emirates against Watford. Costa will test the credentials of this partnership, and a successful show against him could bring the Gunners back in the title race.
It will be easier said than done against the in-form Spanish striker, but for Arsenal's title bid, their rearguard must pass this test.
Other key battles on the pitch will come from the middle of the park and on Arsenal's left flank. Ozil gave N'Golo Kante a torrid time in their last meeting and that was the Frenchman's worst performance this season. He will be keen to get one over the German, and if he succeeds, it would put a big dent in Arsenal's creative force in the game.
Wenger will have to choose between Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal for the left back position. The latter has been struggling with his form, while the former is not the most defensively sound player in their ranks. Whoever plays in that role will have to deal with Moses' constant endeavours down their flank. The Nigerian has played a key role in Chelsea's attack from that position and has even scored few goals running inside the box. The left back will have to track his runs and also stand up to his pace and trickery. So choosing between Gibbs' pace and Monreal's solidity, Wenger has a choice to make.
Chelsea may not win the title on Saturday but if their players triumph in these individual battles, they would have answered most questions thrown at them this season. However, for Arsenal a defeat would certainly end their title challenge and it will once again be a fight for the top four till May.
It's always a war when Chelsea take on Arsenal, and this war's fate will be decided by the outcome of the titanic battle between their stars on Saturday.
Published Date: Feb 04, 2017 11:56 am | Updated Date: Feb 04, 2017 12:40 pm