Last weekend, there was the small distraction of an FA Cup Semi-Final to take Arsenal minds off Chelsea’s clash against Manchester United. United offered a decent enough challenge but ultimately the 1-0 result was all too routine for this well-drilled, resilient Chelsea team who are proving to be the most Mourinho of Mourinho sides since his Inter of 2009/10. Even if Arsenal do beat Chelsea this Sunday, the gap will still be seven points. It does seem that their “title challenge” is over before it even began.
Arsenal win 27/20
Chelsea win 2/1
(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)
However, this does not take anything away from the game’s wider significance. Sunday’s London Derby presents a real opportunity for Arsene Wenger to show that his side have made a meaningful stride forward since last season. In the first few months of this season, many critics rightfully questioned whether Arsenal were actually any better off despite the acquisition of starman Alexis Sanchez who at that point was firing on all cylinders amidst a team of underachievers. Yet Arsenal have rallied since the start of 2015 and a 2nd place finish, along with an FA Cup Final, are just rewards for their respectable turnaround.
Chelsea’s inevitable title on the other hand has come across as rather unremarkable due to the lack of serious contenders. This is somewhat unfair given how impressive and one-sided Chelsea’s early season performances were. From Thibaut Cortois between the sticks to Diego Costa up top, complemented by Eden Hazard’s consistent excellence, this Chelsea team may yet be considered one of the Premier League’s best, if only there had been some decent competition to show it as such.
The reason why both media and neutrals alike have been slow to praise Chelsea’s feats this season is because they are so set up in the eye of their maker. Despite an attractive start, they have reverted to a more functional, strength-based approach that Mourinho favours. This can be seen quite clearly in the introduction of the titanic Kurt Zouma as a defensive midfielder for Chelsea’s big games. Mourinho has also engrained a siege mentality, in which the world and his wife are anti-Chelsea and also attempts to question the regime are met with little attention.
Wenger would love to end his unfortunate run and finally record a victory against Mourinho. The “specialist in failure” jibes still sting deep for the Frenchman, who is yet to beat Mourinho’s Chelsea in 12 attempts. There should be some cause for optimism this year as Wenger has broken the hoodoo of playing the big clubs. The victories away at Man City, at home to Liverpool as well as against United in the Cup, showed different strings to Arsenal’s bow. They also demonstrated that other personnel such as Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil were capable of stepping to the level that Sanchez had set from the off.
Sunday’s game will also mark Cesc Fabregas’ return to the Emirates for the first time since his departure to Barcelona in 2011. Had Fabregas ever played against Arsenal for Barca, he might have expected a fond reception from the home crowd but there will be no civilities this time around. While it was difficult to begrudge him a move back to his boyhood club, the subsequent transfer to Chelsea has left a sour taste in the mouths of the Arsenal fan base. This has been aggravated by the fact that Wenger turned down the chance to re-sign him and the visual evidence that he is quite clearly still up to scratch as the Premier League’s top provider, with 16 assists.
Intriguingly, Wenger is likely to employ his surprise of the season Francis Coquelin to marshal Fabregas in the middle of the park. While Coquelin joined Arsenal in 2008, he did not make his Premier League debut until the fateful 8-2 defeat against Manchester United in August 2011 by which time Fabregas had just signed for Barcelona. After such a baptism by fire, it is pleasing to see that he has not given up the fight to be a top flight footballer following a series of loan spells.
On paper Sunday’s result will count for very little. However, if Arsenal can record a convincing victory with the performance to boot, they can lay down the gauntlet for next season and show that it needn’t be a one-horse race again.
Betting Instinct tip – with Chelsea preferring to keep things tight, the Gunners could all but seal second place with victory this weekend. Arsenal to win 1-0 is 13/2 with AllYouBet.ag
HUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nineand a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.