Arsenal travel to Stamford Bridge looking to cap a decent end to the week with a win that would close the gap to third place from the current eight point difference. Victory would offer the merest hope that scaling the Premier League heights of last season is not out of the question, overcoming the eleven points which defeat would bring a Herculean task. In the shorter term, Arsenal want a victory which will return them to fifth place, easing some of the congestion around the Europa League place following Liverpool’s demolition of Norwich yesterday. And it is hard to imagine a better time to visit Chelsea.
Appointing Rafa Benitez was a moment of bravery or insanity, depending on your viewpoint. The knives were out as soon as the story became believed, a poisonous atmosphere pervading the club but also offering the interim manager a peg upon which to hang his coat. Home form, is in part, apparently down in large part to this; a convenient scapegoat for poor team selection and performance. Like Arsenal, Chelsea’s best form has been on their travels in recent months and this is something Arsenal must exploit. There is a vulnerability about their defence which is summed up by the view that recalling John Terry is the solution; Benitez has not watch van Persie and Walcott against the former England captain in the corresponding fixture last season. Arsène will want his highest paid player to prove that his pace is worth the weekly wage on its own.
Having halted the media juggernaut on players leaving the club, Wenger now finds himself centre stage with Paris St Germain apparently willing to offer him a three year deal worth £30m to manage them. To square the circle and save the Arsenal board worry, Carlo Ancelotti is happy to make the reverse trip. I can’t think of any managerial swap deals in the past but Arsenal has a proud history of being innovative. Or lazy in this eventuality.
For Arsenal, the key is to continue where they finished against Swansea; the energy of the second half performance, the pressurising, the crisp and accurate passing. These were things we always used to take for granted and when the current squad is on top of its game, they are as good as any in the Premier League. They lack the consistency as Tony Adams noted recently, Sol Campbell this morning referred to the need for five leaders on the pitch, one of whom is nominated captain. That is in line with the manager’s lack of importance placed on the captaincy, how it has been used as a sop for senior professionals for the last six or seven years.
Today, the leaders are emerging. Whether Jack Wilshere will be a captain, I don’t know, it is too early to say but his willingness to take the game by the scruff of the neck against Swansea was a positive, a view compounded by the constant chatter with teammates. Players around him responded to his energy; the next stage would be more to take up any slack rather than waiting for someone to inspire. Per Mertesacker strayed into that territory with his pre-match comments,
When we put our opponent under pressure we are always dangerous. That must be our target at Chelsea as well.
For this afternoon, Laurent Koscielny is available following his suspension. I am not sure he should return, Demba Ba will most likely play as a solo striker and to be honest, the combination of Vermaelen and the German have the combined attributes to deal with the player more effectively than Arsenal did in his last appearance at The Emirates. Hazard and Mata complete the trio of players Arsenal were heavily linked with and the Spaniard is rightly garnering the biggest share of the praise, proving more value for money than the Belgian at the moment. Nullifying the supply line from the later duo will be key to setting up an Arsenal win.
For Arsène, the choice of his line-up is interesting. Walcott’s pace is key yet Giroud worked hard on Wednesday, offering a different outlet. The problem is that Arsenal do not have any options from the bench if both are on the field, this is the area the manager is surely looking to change in what remains of this month. It seems unlikely that the Frenchman will start today with that in mind. Any late injuries may open the door for Coquelin, who impressed on Wednesday, with Cazorla moving wide. I wonder if Arsène in those circumstances might start Giroud and move Walcott to the right; that would be a potent supply line with the pace to cause concern for their hosts.
The XI I expect at start is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Diaby, Cazorla, Wilshere; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Podolski
A win this afternoon could provide a strong springboard and I am sure Arsenal enter every game with that objective. As key though, is not to lose, to prevent a bigger gap emerging. A cautious tight affair should be expected. Nonetheless, enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.