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League Cup: Chelsea, Arsenal renew rivalry in semis as troubled bosses look to let teams do the talking

From thrilling and entertaining to crazy and chaotic. Arsenal's 2-2 draw against Chelsea in the Premier League exactly a week go attracted a varying degree of adjectives. It was a game that might have satisfied the taste buds of a neutral, but only soured the mouths of those supporting either side. The duel produced some brilliant goals, and established few interesting sub-plots, but what came out glaringly from the match were the deficiencies in the two sides.

With Manchester City being the "problem" for Chelsea, Arsenal and those around in the Premier League title race, both sides have been forced to look elsewhere for silverware this season. Despite the possibility of a final against the indomitable City looming large, the Carabao Cup remains the best bet for either side of winning a trophy in the ongoing campaign.

The failures of their respective sides to mount a title challenge of any note has put the bosses under pressure and the build-up to these series of cup games has seen both Antonio Conte and Arsene Wenger showing signs of cracking. The former was involved in a war of words with Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho that spilled out of control in the past week, while the Arsenal manager has seen his public outrage at the referees earn him a three-game touchline ban.

Chelsea's Antonio Conte (L) and Arsenal's Arsene Wenger are feeling the pressure of their side's inability to mount a serious title challenge. AFP

Chelsea's Antonio Conte (L) and Arsenal's Arsene Wenger are feeling the pressure of their side's inability to mount a serious title challenge. AFP

On the pitch, their teams haven't shown the same level of energy as their gaffers have in the press conferences, resulting in below par showings in the FA Cup third round. Arsenal were embarrassed by manager-less Nottingham Forest, who couldn't win for a toffee until they stunned the Gunners 4-2 at the City Ground on Sunday. A toothless Chelsea, on the other hand, failed to find a way past second-tier Norwich City, who forced the English champions into a replay post a 0-0 draw at Carrow Road.

The semi-final first leg clash at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday thus becomes crucial for the seasons of both Arsenal and Chelsea.

If media reports over the course of the season — especially in case of Conte — are anything to go by, then the positions of the two managers could be the greatest talking points at the respective clubs come the end of the season. The Italian could decide to walk away from the post, with the former Juventus boss making no attempts to hide his disappointment at the club's transfer policy throughout the season, while Wenger could do the exact opposite and stay on despite deep disgruntle among the fans.

However, winning the Carabao Cup could do well to ease the anxieties at the two clubs in the summer. But for that to happen, Conte and Wenger will need to get their focus back to the task at hand after spending much of the past week firing shots at other parties.

Ahead of the League Cup clash, both managers have plenty of rough edges to smooth out that were exposed in the draw at the Emirates last week. While Wenger's hands are tied by the long list of injury concerns his side is facing, Conte is struggling to find the right balance to make the best use of his near full-strength squad.

Arsenal are set to be without Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Sead Kolasinac, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud  for the trip to Stamford Bridge, with Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil considered doubtful and needing to pass a fitness test to make the cut for the game. The availability, and more importantly the mental state, of Alexis Sanchez, who is reportedly close to a switch to Manchester City, is also under question despite Wenger confirming that the Chilean will be considered for selection for the Carabao Cup game.

So Arsenal will go into the semi-final in no better shape than last week, if not in a worse position. The Gunners may be forced to rely on the abilities of their reserves especially if the doubtful starters aren't able to recover in time.

Wenger is expected to line up his troops in a 3-4-3 formation if Ozil is not passed fit. Rob Holding, Mustafi and Callum Chambers are expected to comprise the back three with Per Mertesacker the alternative in case Mustafi misses out. Xhaka and Jack Wilshere would start in central midfield with Mohamed Elneny expected to slot in if the Swiss is held back due to an injury concern.

Upfront Alexandre Lacazette seems a sure starter after being rested for the FA Cup clash, with Sanchez and Danny Welbeck likely to complete the front three. If Ozil is fit, he will start in between the midfield two and the forwards in a 3-4-1-2 formation with Welbeck making way. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin will occupy the wing back positions.

Chelsea have been shuttling between a 3-4-3 and a 3-5-2 formations this season, but Conte has preferred the latter against stronger opponents. However, with Arsenal suffering from severe defensive crisis and Ozil also likely to miss out, the Italian could be tempted to have a go with the more attacking 3-4-3.

Alvaro Morata had an outing to forget last week as he missed three one-on-one chances to put Chelsea in front, but a timid display from Michy Batshuayi at the weekend means the Spaniard could be recalled to lead Chelsea's line again.

The biggest selection dilemma for Conte will be at the heart of the midfield where he has to choose between Tiemoue Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater. Bakayoko had a torrid time dealing with Ozil in the last game as the German operated in the space vacated by the Frenchman who was given the license to join the forward players in attack.

Mesut Ozil caused Chelsea plenty of problems in the 2-2 draw in the Premier League last week. AFP

Mesut Ozil caused Chelsea plenty of problems in the 2-2 draw in the Premier League last week. AFP

Bakayoko struggled all evening with his positioning, allowing Ozil to drop deep and cause Chelsea all sorts of problems. Drinkwater, an irregular feature for Chelsea since his move from Leicester in the summer, gave a good account of himself when he was tasked with marking Phillipe Coutinho during Chelsea's 1-1 draw at Anfield in the Premier League in November, and could get the nod ahead of Bakayoko.

If Conte decides to bank on the Englishman, he will reunite Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante, the central midfield pair that won Leicester the title two seasons ago.

Cesc Fabregas is expected to return to the team after being rested at the weekend, but he faces competition from Pedro or Willian if Conte opts for a more attacking shape. Eden Hazard is a sure starter in any formation for the Blues.

Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill are likely to form Chelsea's back three with Marcos Alonso a set to start at left wing-back. Victor Moses and Davide Zappacosta will vie for the right wing back spot, with the former's struggle to deal with Maitland-Niles in last week's game giving the Italian an edge over him.

With Arsenal being badly handicapped for the first leg, Chelsea have a golden chance to make the most of home advantage and put the tie beyond Arsenal before the return leg. The Blues will need to be more clinical in front goal and control the central area of the pitch better to make their man-to-man superiority count, but the Gunners' recent record against their rivals from west-London will give them hope.

After making all the wrong noises off the pitch in recent weeks, it is time for both Conte and Wenger to do the talking on the pitch. The coach who manages to aid his respective side's frailties from the previous encounter will come out on top and earn a shot at much-needed silverware.


Updated Date: Jan 10, 2018 18:06 PM

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