Chelsea ready to master Arsenal again

Posted by Mark Worrall

The Chelsea and Arsenal collision at the Emirates on Monday night is the first of several fixtures over the festive period that are intriguing and compelling for the current crop of Premier League title challengers.

On Boxing Day, Manchester City entertain Liverpool, with the Reds then facing a trip to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea. Although it's too early to talk of title-deciders, there is a definite "six-pointer" feel about these matches and the psychological effects for the winners and losers could be quite profound.

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Last weekend, Arsenal were put to the sword by Manchester City at the Etihad, where their defence uncharacteristically shipped six goals. Chelsea's back line, meanwhile, has also displayed a porousness in recent matches not previously witnessed in the Abramovich era -- and certainly not associated with teams managed by Jose Mourinho. Both these factors suggest that Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, and his Blues' counterpart Mourinho, will have defensive strategies paramount in their thinking as they prepare for a game neither team can afford to lose.

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After this week's public "dropping" of Ashley Cole after the Chelsea and England star's Christmas party antics with the players of his former club Arsenal, Mourinho has already declared that Cesar Azpilicueta will start at left-back in place of Cole with Branislav Ivanovic featuring at right-back. With Petr Cech returning in goal having been rested in the midweek Capital One Cup defeat at Sunderland, Mourinho's only dilemma is whom to partner with captain John Terry in central defence.

David Luiz? Possesses samba style but a propensity to bring Chelsea supporters out in a cold sweat. Gary Cahill? Solid and dependable, but lacking the mobility and vision of his Brazilian teammate.

In recent games, the Blues' inexcusable inability to defend set pieces has been their undoing -- a shortcoming perhaps born out of Mourinho's persistent tinkering that has players out of position. Surely training ground workouts this week will have addressed this problem? We will know more come full-time on Monday night.

AllsportJose Mourinho and Chelsea have had a grip over Arsenal in the modern era, but neither side will care much for history on Monday.


Further forward, the Chelsea boss faces more selection headaches.

If he partners Frank Lampard with John Obi Mikel in central midfield, should he play Ramires on the right or opt for Willian, who has excelled in recent appearances? Live wire Eden Hazard, benched at the Stadium of Light, is expected to return on the left flank, which potentially means no place in the Blues' starting XI for Andre Schurrle.

Meanwhile, fit-again Oscar will be deployed in the No. 10 role, with Fernando Torres the likely lone striker. There is a school of thought suggesting that, as with the early-season game at Old Trafford against Manchester United, Mourinho might opt to play Schurrle up front against Arsenal - although that game ended in a 0-0 stalemate with the Portuguese emerging with little credit for what was seen as a bold statement that Chelsea needed to sign a striker.

Gunners boss Wenger has selection problems of his own. In midfield, excellent Jack Wilshere begins a two-game ban after his alleged gesture to Manchester City fans at the Etihad last weekend, and, in central defence, Laurent Koscielny will also miss out, having been forced off early in the same game with a knee laceration.

The return to fitness of Theo Walcott, who bagged a brace against City, is a big plus for Wenger, and the England player, with his electric turn of pace, will need to be closely marked by Chelsea's defence, who will surely be punished for any somnambulist behaviour.

Statistically, recent fortune favours the Blues and Mourinho in particular. Since Roman Abramovich arrived on the scene a little more than a decade ago, the two sides have met 22 times, with 13 victories to Chelsea and Arsenal winning on just four occasions. Mourinho has never lost to Wenger, but the Blues manager, with that old Machiavellian twinkle in his eye, magnanimously played down the stat.

"It's not me against Wenger," he said. "It's my Chelsea against his Arsenal. That [statistic] doesn't play on Monday. It has no influence. It means nothing for Monday."

There is no doubt that, in the modern era, the Stamford Bridge club has a huge psychological influence over its north London opponents and this has percolated down to the supporters of both teams. At the Emirates on Monday night, Blues fans will be swift to chide and silence their less vocal, but numerically superior, Red counterparts at the earliest opportunity.

"Against them [Arsenal], we play very good matches," opined Mourinho, when asked why Chelsea seem to have a hoodoo over Arsenal. "As a consequence, we have got good results."

There is no doubt that, despite the recent erratic nature of Blues performances, Mourinho, his players and the supporters of Chelsea Football Club retain a special bond when it comes to playing the old-school elite -- with no greater pleasure to be taken than mastering Arsenal. Victory then for the men from SW6, followed by a home defeat to Swansea on Boxing Day.

That's Chelsea for you -- unpredictable and glorious in almost even measures since 1905.

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