Arsenal travels to West London for the early match on Saturday to face off against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (7:30AM EST on ESPN2). It’s the sternest test since the desperately needed improvement of late, and the result will reveal whether the team has finally shaken the pernicious monkey off its back or if the Red and Whites really are a defensive shambles with only one dependable goalscorer.
It’s not a make-or-break match, per se, but the result carries more weight than simply three points. Arsenal has finally cobbled together a string of results in the league, in Europe and most recently in the Carling Cup, but all that could soon come to a screeching halt. Most people are expecting to hear that ear-splitting screech. However, if Arsenal can emerge with a draw or perhaps lose but put in a convincing performance, things really could be looking up. A win would cause half of North London to flip out, undoubtedly, but at some point one needs to be realistic.
To start with the positives, Arsenal top their Champions League group at the midway point and have only Olympiakos away, with Dortmund and Marseille set to travel to the Emirates, where Arsenal has racked up the majority of its wins. The team has clawed its way to seventh place after an abysmal start to the season (1-1-3). Robin van Persie is still far and away to go-to man for goals, but Gervinho, Aaron Ramsey and Andrey Arshavin have started scoring a few themselves, in addition to some excellent assists. Gervinho played an outstanding match against Stoke, involved in all three goals, scoring the first off an incredible chip from Ramsey. Meanwhile, many positives emerged in the 2-1 Carling Cup win over Bolton on Tuesday. Of which more right now.
For starters, Thomas Vermaelen captained the side on his long-awaited return. Steely-eyed and solid as ever, he commanded his area as if he never left. His recovery means that all the center halves are again fit. It’s surreal to even write that. As any statistician knows, the last time Arsenal had all its center halves fit is a month and year that does not translate in modern alphanumerics. Heady times. Even backup center halves Ignasi Miquel and Sébastien Squillaci are fit (both of whom played Tuesday, and Squillaci wasn’t even half bad for once).
After the match, news broke that Vermaelen may have suffered a calf injury. Cue Bacary Sagna leg-break despair. But then he declared himself fit again (rejoice!), which could put him in the frame for Chelsea. One would forecast the bench as his most likely destination, with the Mertesacker-Koscielny axis in good working order at present, and rested. But Vermaelen is our best defender, and Chelsea away is when you’d like to have your best defenders. It would also free up Laurent Koscielny for right back. Wenger definitely has some decisions to make.
To say Vermaelen’s leadership and cool headedness have been sorely missed would be a gross understatement. Despite the Belgian’s return to training Wednesday and his avowal that he’s ready for the Bridge, though, someone should probably say, “Slow your roll, Tommy.” Few comebacks from long injury transpire without setbacks and the emergence of some niggles. We can cope without him this game (hopefully). Per Mertesacker and Koscielny have forged a good partnership of late, and although the absence of both right backs (Sagna, broken leg; Carl Jenkinson, knee) presents a not-insignificant problem, it is not the end of the world. Djourou isn’t great but he fared reasonably well against Stoke.
Fortunately, the Carling Cup match did not send Vermaelen back to the injury table as feared. He does not currently wear a protective boot or click about the infirmary with a cane. That is good. Likewise, a measured approach to reentry would also be good.
It’s Chelsea, though, so he very well may feature. (I should take this flip-flop act into politics.)
In central defense, we’ve gone from famine to feast. Thankfully, since it’s more important than ever to have the bodies, with central defenders now tasked to fill in at right back. Even for left back, should André Santos join Kieran Gibbs on the sidelines, the left-footed Ignasi Miquel has shown he can slot in, as needed. Nico Yennaris, for his part, also proved himself a tenacious right back in his first-team debut, though the Chelsea starting XI is certainly a taller order than a Bolton Carling Cup side. However, as undesirable as it may be, for the moment there’s cover and room for rotation until the proper right backs get back to fitness.
Meanwhile, Ju Young Park may have done enough with his first-touch curler strike against Bolton to leapfrog above the horrendously out-of-form Marouane Chamakh in the pecking order. And Arshavin, who played in the number 10 role he occupies with Russia, pulled off a great dribble and strike in the box, later to provide the assist to Park that won the match. The Russian was undoubtedly man of the match. Perhaps Arshavin supporting Park as lone striker provides a two-person answer to the “What the hell do we do if van Persie gets injured?” conundrum. Using the players we have, that is.
To wit, Arsene must finally admit the failure of the Chamakh experiment. Few would be happy to see the January transfer window pass without a top striker entering the mix. Few Arsenal supporters, at least. Presumably, many would cackle with glee at the prospect. But they are very bad people. Chamakh may yet find his form again, but he’s been a passenger in every game he’s played this season. One goal in 12 months is not good enough.
But I digress. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Francis Coquelin had so-so games, with recurring lapses and some sloppy passing. Hopefully, however, the off-game will temper some of the expectations on the emerging pair. Arsenal fans have a habit of over-hyping youth prospects and then losing patience. (I might have written “starlets,” if I didn’t despise the word so much.) At present, the frustrating Theo Walcott will not yet lose his place to AOC, and Alex Song will not yet lose his spot to Coquelin. They’re still climbing the ranks. They have both played beyond their years in past games, but they were due an off day sooner or later. Emmanuel Frimpong had a decent match, aside for the mix-up with Coquelin that opened the door for the Bolton goal. And after running nonstop on Tuesday, the industrious Yossi Benayoun gets a rest, as he cannot play against Chelsea due to loan restrictions on playing against one’s home club.
Łukasz Fabiański did well enough, resisting his customary urge to find new and exciting ways to literally drop the ball and own-goal on himself. Squillaci, who played his first game of the season, similarly decided to forego his self-destruct tendencies. He was actually surprisingly effective, winning most of the aerial challenges that came his way.
In recent years, the Carling Cup has largely served to blood the youth players and give them a bit of face time in front of the fans. As with Yennaris and Miquel, Ryo Miyaichi, Oguzhan Ozyakup and Daniel Boateng all performed well on their runouts. Less (or equally) unfamiliar names Jernade Meade, Sanchez Watt and Chuks Aneke didn’t make it off the bench but may get their shot next time out, unless Wenger opts for more first teamers in an attempt to really make a go for the silverware.
Ultimately, the victory secured a berth in the quarterfinals and notched Arsenal’s seventh win in eight. No definitive corners have been turned, but the results are slowly building confidence, for players and supporters alike.
Which brings us to Chelsea away. When the image of a trip to Stamford Bridge evokes terror images of a double-digit scoreline (if the team that beat us 8-2 can be beat 6-1…), it’s too soon to speak of corner-turning. However, if we do well in any sense of the word, if Arsenal can nab any points from the game, it will be an enormous boost.
Didier Drogba misses out due to the red card earned against QPR. Drogba is no longer the player who so regularly turned the Arsenal over and had his unspeakable way with them, but still, no Drogba is good Drogba. Michael Essien and Ramires miss out with knee injuries. And although John Terry finds himself embroiled in yet another scandal, it never seems to have affected his performance in the past.
Chelsea is hardly walking wounded. Several players can and will punish any slip-ups in defense, not least their own defenders, such as David Luiz and Ashley Cole, who’s certain to do something pantomime villainish against his former club. We will see firsthand what we missed out on in Juan Mata, who has excelled on the wing since joining the West Londoners. Raul Meireles and Frank Lampard will also test Wojciech Szczęsny, as will Daniel Sturridge, who has scored 4 goals in 5 league starts. And depending on which Fernando Torres shows up, it could be quite dangerous up front. We shall see.
The Arsenal roster at Stamford Bridge will showcase a whole new list of names from the Carling Cup side, familiar names attached to familiar faces. Koscielny improves with every game and has gotten much more solid. Mertesacker continues to adapt to the faster pace and physicality of the league. Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and either Tomáš Rosický or Ramsey will most likely man the midfield, with the in-form duo of Gervinho and Robin van Persie in front. And as for the eleventh of the XI? Has Theo Walcott done enough to keep his starting spot? No, but I would imagine that having rested the midweek game tips the scales in his favor. I’d rather see him as an impact sub, but with AOC’s erratic play on Tuesday and Arshavin needing a breather, Speedy will get the nod, though Arshavin deserves it.
The stakes are high. With all the talk of a Big Three (the Manchesters and Chelsea) as opposed to the traditional Big Four or new-fangled Big Six (Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham scrapping it out for fourth place), if Arsenal pull off an unlikely upset, third place could be up for grabs. A loss for Chelsea and wins for Newcastle and Tottenham could conceivably see Chelsea dumped to fourth place, ahead of Spurs on goal difference alone. Keep in mind, Spurs still have a game in hand.
It’s strange to no longer regard Chelsea as near-invincible, but of the top three they definitely seem the weakest. The loss to QPR last weekend certainly highlights their vulnerability. Chelsea have not kept a clean sheet in 8 league games, whereas superkeeper Szczęsny has been getting more and more solid. Chelsea has played only one team in the top 6, a match that they lost to Manchester United, 3-1. (Arsenal has faced four of the top 6.) A victory over Arsenal would cement their place, but with matches against Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham ahead, the once mighty Chelsea isn’t necessarily guaranteed a perennial spot in the top three. Especially if they don’t dispatch Arsenal and take all three points at home.
All this may be crazy talk, of course. Had Chelsea not lost to QPR, they’d now be in second place. Chelsea are huge favorites to win on Saturday. They are in fact huge favorites to utterly trounce Arsenal on Saturday. The most generous neutral would say Arsenal might have a chance of snatching a draw. Less generous folks would consider Arsenal lucky to escape a hiding at the Bridge.
Better Arsenal teams have faced Chelsea and lost horribly. But as long as van Persie is fit and firing, the Arsenal has a chance. A far-afield, outer-rim outside chance, granted, but a chance nonetheless. Van Persie has scored six goals in the last four league games. Hopefully he’s saved a few for the Blues.