Saturday, 29 October 2011

Chelsea v Arsenal - Preview

Arsenal have largely stayed out of the headlines this week - a refreshing change given the media's tendency to play up the 'club in crisis' angle at every opportunity. Thankfully, Manchester United's half-satisfying humbling at the hands of noisy neighbours City has taken centre-stage as attention has focused alternately on United's weaknesses and City's strengths - so 6 of 1, half a dozen of the other, really...

Moreover, the fallout from the entirely separate John Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident has also occupied the back pages; JT's apparent inability to act like a normal, functioning, decent human being either on the pitch or off it rearing its ugly head again.

However, with the Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge looming, the focus has once again shifted back to the Gunners. Arsenal have not taken points from any of the teams currently ahead of them in the league so far this season, with disappointing defeats to Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs already featuring as embarrassing blemishes on the 2011/12 record. Given our relatively poor record of late at the Bridge - we haven't won there since November 2008 - it is debatable whether this match will be an opportunity to continue what could otherwise be a decent run in the lead-up to Christmas. Fans should still be positive given recent results, the excellent form of RvP and signs of returning confidence and greater fluency in Arsenal's play, though.

Regrettably the Gunners are still likely to be without a recognised right-back. Djourou could again deputise, but given that Vermaelen successfully completed 85 minutes against Bolton (minor cramp in one calf stopped him seeing out the game in full) it is possible that the Belgian could return, with Koscielny moving to the right. Yossi Benayoun is of course ineligible to play against his parent club due to the terms of his loan deal.

The game will be a considerable test indeed, but we can be thankful that Arsenal's hulking Ivorian nemesis, Didier Drogba, will not be playing due to the red card he picked up last weekend against QPR. On the other hand Fernando Torres should return, unless Villas-Boas opts for the Sturridge-Anelka pairing ahead of the £50 million pound man. Enforced suspension has stalled Torres' progress, but he has shown signs of returning form, and scored two good Champions League goals against Genk. We must hope that El Niño's explosive comeback doesn't begin against the Arsenal. Given his undoubted quality it is sure to occur sooner or later, despite the Shevchenko-esque burden of expectation on his shoulders.

Still, our very own RvP is in better goal-scoring form than any of Chelsea's expensively assembled forward line at present, and he will be key to any prospect of getting a result from this game. He'll be up against a Chelsea defence that has looked solid but not impregnable (they have conceded in all but one of their last eight home matches), and although bolstered by the return of Bosingwa and Ashley Cole to the full-back positions all eyes will be on John Terry's conduct in the middle.

Meireles, Mata, a resurgent Lampard and the possible return of Ramires will all pose considerable threats, although AVB would surely struggle to accommodate all four in his starting eleven, and recent reports suggest that the game has come slightly too soon for the Brazilian anyway, who is still coming back from injury. Arsenal's midfield, which will in all likelihood consist of the ever-improving Song-Arteta-Ramsey axis, with Gervinho and Walcott on either flank, will have to be at their combative best to counter the opposing trio as well as preventing Mikel from fulfilling his 'ball-playing Makélélé' brief in the holding role.

The Gunners' pretty poor away form and Chelsea's contrasting excellent home form in 2011/12 does not augur well - ultimately, from the red-and-white perspective, a point would do very nicely here. However the game is certainly not the foregone conclusion it might have been a month ago. Kick-off at Stamford Bridge is at lunchtime today - will Arsenal be able to show that they are now bridging the gap between themselves and Chelsea et al at the top of the league?

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