A short trip could become a long road for Wenger and Arsenal
There is approximately 10 km (six miles) between the Emirates Stadium and Stamford Bridge, but if Arséne Wenger’s team loses on Sunday against the defending champions, will they be able to bridge the distance already created in the past five games?
On paper, Arséne Wenger’s tenuous balance to stay in favor with supporters had been bolstered by this Summer’s recruits of Kolasinac and Lacazette. The former has already put himself in their good books by scoring a debut header in the Community Shield and via Arsenal’s slightly skittish Europa League opener against FC Köln last week. On top of additions, they have finally removed the dead weight of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was perilously close to be facing his former employers in Royal Blue. He transferred late in August to Liverpool for roughly £40m.
Potholes encountered at Anfield Road
It has not been plain sailing though, a 4-0 drumming at Anfield just before the international break and a shock loss at Stoke has upped the pressure for Arsenal earlier than usual. A casual canter against Bournemouth may have smoothed over the choppy waters for the Gunners, but will they keep up the form?
Chelsea, by contrast, who’ve had a slightly smoother start to the PL season still haven’t avoided a bobble on the way. There was a very unexpected 3-2 loss against Burnley at home. The side had to make do without their captain after a brash sending off earlier in the match. All resulting in the suspension of Gary Cahill for the last three games. But the bump hasn’t seemed to have totally upended them, having scored at least two goals in wins against Spurs, Everton and Leicester, respectively, via contributions by Alvaro Morata’s seemingly magnetised forehead.
Stick or twist?
In terms of the PL season, it is early days. In theory, both sides have a chance to come out of the game with bragging rights in what is hopefully a feisty affair. The issue at hand, though, is how are both sides going to line up at the Bridge this weekend?
As of recently, both Arsenal and Chelsea have used a variation of a 3-4-3.
Antonio Conte likes to shuffle his midfield. He rotates Fabregas or Bakayoko alongside the industrious Kante. In their win against Leicester, Chelsea fielded all three in what looked like a variation of a 3-5-1-1 or a 3-5-2. In that match, Pedro dovetailed behind Morata to offer up support. An appearance by Danny Drinkwater for his new side isn’t likely this weekend. Conte suggested in his pre-match presser that a calf injury will make it hard for the Englishman to get on the pitch before the next international break. So Conte is expected to revert to his more conservative 3-4-3 but the real questions lie in defence and in attack.
Conte’s continuing conundrums
After a full 90 minute run out in the Champions League, will Antonio Conte be tempted to start Gary Cahill after his mishap on the opening day? And if so, will that mean Antonio Rudiger—who has settled in quite nicely—will be the candidate to sit on the bench to accommodate him? Such a decision will have to wait until the last training day.
Victor Moses may be peering over his shoulder with the latest addition to the RWB slot, Davide Zappacosta, looking very impressive against an albeit, weak Qarabag side in the midweek. The Italian punctuated his first start for Chelsea with a—let’s be frank—sliced cross from that found its way into the opponent’s net. It’s hard to tell if that solid performance is enough to warrant a start in the derby, and the rest for Moses in the Champions League suggests that he is going to start the game.
The real quandary for Conte, however, is whether Eden Hazard is ready to start. The Belgian spent the summer injured on the sidelines. The mercurial striker has been eased back into the team. He has made cameo appearancess here and there but hasn’t managed the full 90 minutes so far. Antonio has said that Hazard is now “very close to being totally fit”. However, he reiterated that any decisions made will be for the betterment of the team on match day. Sharpness takes time, but Hazard appears ready to be thrust back into the starting line-up for at least 65 minutes this Sunday.
Wenger shuffles the deck
Moving from one forward to another, it has been business as usual as Alexis Sanchez has returned to the Arsenal line-up. He has come back post-injury and post-transfer-saga and has resumed where he last left off. A somewhat typical finish into the top corner against Köln proved that he was back in regular form, but how many of the players from Thursday will face a two game bounce in three days?
Rotation is key for the Sunday game. Having started their Europa League opener a little later than usual due to crowd troubles, rest will be a scarce commodity for the Arsenal squad. Arséne Wenger in his press conference stated that the team should be able to bounce back in time for their match at Chelsea. “Yes,” he said, “I believe in three days we can recover. Overall, that should not be a problem.”
Guaranteed absences do exist however. Francis Coquelin is expected to be out of contention with a hamstring injury. Santi Cazorla is going to be out until Christmas. Calum Chambers also remains sidelined.
As of recently, the squad has looked far more comfortable fielding a typical 4-man defence. Wenger reverted to a CB pairing against Köln in the second half after originally coming out with a 3-4-3 and managed to salvage a potential upset. Will that be a permanent change?
Outlook for midfield clashes
Petr Cech looks set to return to his position between the posts as a blunder by David Ospina earlier this week didn’t give many people reasons to trust in him.
The real battle on Sunday will be in midfield. Ramsey and Özil rested on Thursday. They seem to be the most likely choices to start. Özil could play behind the striker in a “3” with Alexis Sanchez on the left. Both would drop back to help out. Granit Xhaka also did not appear in the game against Köln. That opens up a potential starting midfield pairing of Xhaka and Ramsey. Mohamed Elneny may also be in the mix, if he can overcome the lack of rest.
In the fullback/wingback positions, it seems that Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac have stated their claims for a permanent fixture there, but the latter can also switch positions with Nacho Monreal if the side reverts to a three man defence.
Up front, Danny Welbeck or Alexandre Lacazette look to be the most likely to fight for the starting slot, with both scoring in the recent game against AFC Bournemouth. Giroud looks set to sit on the bench.
Likely starting line-ups
Chelsea: Courtois; Rudiger, David Luiz, Azpilicueta; Alonso, Kante, Fabregas, Moses; Hazard, Willian; Morata.
Arsenal: Cech; Monreal, Koscielny, Mustafi; Kolasinac, Xhaka, Ramsey, Bellerin; Sanchez, Ozil; Lacazette.
Chelsea have won 16 of their last 18 home matches (Premier League).
If Arsenal concede they will equal their longest run of away matches without a clean sheet against a single opponent in the PL (13 v Liverpool between 1999 and 2012).
Chelsea have been winning at both half time and full time in 6 of their last 8 home matches against Arsenal in all competitions.
Alvaro Morata – Chelsea
It has got to be Morata, hasn’t it? The Spanish center-forward who joined Chelsea in the final weeks of the transfer window, has made a great start to life in England and London, scoring and assisting a combined 5 goals in 3 starts, averaging a goal in every 3.5 shots.
In addition to being a good finisher in and around the box with his feet, the 24-year old carries an aerial threat befitting a Chelsea number 9, and will prove crucial to the Blues notching up another important win against arguably, their biggest rivals.
Alexis Sanchez – Arsenal
Sanchez is one of the best players in the league and the fact that Arsenal held on to him in a Summer which he looked certain to part ways, is already a positive step towards cracking back into the top four, for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.
The Chilean has scored at Stamford Bridge in the past and is usually the last to give in and his form in these big games, particularly away from home, will be vital to Arsenal picking up enough points against the top six to keep them alive in the fight for bigger trophies.
How to watch and prediction
- Match date: Sunday 17th Sept. 2017
- Time: 13:30 (BST)
- Stadium: Stamford Bridge
- Referee: Michael Oliver
Chelsea to continue marching on with a narrow win.
Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
Who do you think will start the game? What are your score predictions?