Monday, 23 December 2013

Arsenal vs Chelsea: Match Preview

If this isn't a must-win, then what is?
We face an exhausted Chelsea tonight at the Emirates Stadium, with a view of restoring our 2 point lead at the top. After dropping points against Everton and City, we simply cannot afford another slip-up today, especially when it would come at a huge cost.

The five point lead that we earlier boasted of served a meaningful purpose. It still preserved our lead after a humbling at the Etihad, and gave us a chance of being on the top again, albeit by a much slender margin. While we know that reinforcements are required to enhance our title challenge, for now we just need to get a victory to be in the loop until the players we need do arrive.

Whether they will arrive or not shall be seen in the coming month, but that's a discussion that's neither here nor there, coming into tonight's game. Chelsea are a side that greatly resemble ours - a fantastic midfield, striker issues, yet high up in the league. As much as we need to win, they badly need a result too, to bounce back from the defeats against Sunderland and Stoke.

I can't help but feel that this game will be won in the midfield. Both sides have their strengths in the middle of the park, and will doubtless try to use that to their advantage. For every Ozil, they have a Mata, and for every Ramsey, they have a Lampard. While it is my firm belief that Chelsea is a team that is currently better than ours, they will undoubtedly be physically and psychologically drained after crashing out of the Capital One Cup in extra time.

Even though we haven't been given the easiest side to resurrect our title challenge, I can't help but feel that we've got Chelsea at their weakest. As a mark of a title-challenging side, we really should take advantage of it.

The return of Podolski (aha!) gives us more options upfront, but I doubt he'll be a starter in tonight's clash. After dropping Santi, I have a hunch that Wenger will field him on the left, along with Theo and Giroud. While the defence of Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Gibbs picks itself for this match, the midfield should be a bit of a pickle for Wenger. He has Flamini, Ramsey, Arteta, Ozil and Rosicky who are available at his disposal, yet only 3 spots available. I suspect he'll opt for a trio of Flamini, Arteta and Ozil, with Ramsey dropping to the bench despite his current form.

Look at that bench. If my prediction of Arsene's lineup indeed proves accurate, it shall consist of Ramsey, Rosicky, Podolski and would also include Wilshere were he not banned for two games. It hardly needs emphasizing that our bench is significantly stronger than it was seasons ago, along with 11 fresh legs out on the pitch. While Podolski isn't up and running to the rigours of the Premier League yet, he doubtless will be in a couple of games, which might just give Wenger some food for thought on Giroud's striker position.

If you ask me, I still think that we should buy a striker to increase our options. However, the main reason for that was because I wasn't really convinced with having Podolski as a choice upfront. In the previous season, he wasn't exactly prolific when he was deployed out there, you see. However, after witnessing Giroud's markedly improving second season, I can't help but wonder if Podolski can do the same with Arsenal. You never know, if Lukas indeed replicates his 2006 World Cup form, we might not require a striker after all.

While Podolski was by no means a flop, he was certainly a bit underwhelming last season, as was Giroud. Look at Ollie now. If he did have the suitable backup that we are all craving for thus far, I'm sure that his good form would've continued throughout this first half of the season. Maybe the return of Podolski might just provide the backup he needs, you know.  

Anyway, that's one curious issue that will be answered in the coming Christmas fixtures, depending on Podolski's form and our winter transfer budget. All I have to say for now is that we cannot afford a loss, or even a draw against this huge team that we're about to face. I respectfully disagree to those people who think that a draw is an acceptable result. It might be acceptable for a team fighting for the top four, rather than the top one. If we're serious about winning the title, we should capitalize on Chelsea's tired legs and deliver them a knockout blow.

The fixture list gets a lot easier after facing Chelsea. Our next league games - after Chelsea - includes West Ham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Aston Villa, Fulham, Southampton and Crystal Palace. Out of these games, it won't be unreasonable to ask for 18 points out of a possible 21. If we indeed throw Chelsea off the pace and win most of our upcoming matches, we might go a bit more than 5 points clear come February.

Even though a Wenger side has never beaten a Mourinho side, the odds are slightly in our favour in this one. We have players like Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey who have gotten 9 days of rest that they so needed, and we have strength on the bench if they do tire. We have players like Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott and Mikel Arteta who feel that they yet have a lot to prove to the manager and book a starting berth. And we had 9 days of buildup to this game, along with the carrot of restoring our lead at the top for incentive enough.

I don't really know which way this game is going to go, honestly. Both sides have equal strengths and weaknesses as well in all areas of the pitch, and have a common goal of going further high up in the pitch. Pessimist that I am, I have a hunch that Chelsea's never say die mentality might prove decisive at the Emirates, but I'm confident that we're going to give them a good run for their money this time, unlike the City massacre.

A finely balanced London derby with a lot to lose and a lot to gain is approaching. If we do win, it'll surely be the best Christmas present that I've gotten thus far.

Come on you Gunners.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )