Arsenal – Chelsea (Premier League)
Despite the already quite busy Christmas schedule, the Premier League has somehow found a way to give the impression of a non-stop football extravaganza. The several fixtures up until the New Year will be closely preceded by a London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea on December 23rd, where a win will allow either one to hold first spot during the holiday. The date becomes even more important as the leaders of the last four editions of the Premier League by Christmas were eventually crowned champions.
Arsenal have been impressive for most of the season, the arrival of Mezut Özil providing the missing attacking spark. Finally equipped with an experienced, solid defence, Arsène Wenger has been able to summon an almost unchanged back five week after week, which has provided much-needed stability. However, the defence has not been as solid of late, with the Gunners conceding as many goals in their last 2 Premier League matches as in the previous 13 games (7). In fact, Arsenal’s form might be perilously on the wane, as indicated by the Champions League defeat against Napoli, an uninspired home draw against Everton and a 6-3 drubbing at the Etihad. Therefore, their ambitions to clinch the title cannot be dissociated from a good result against direct competitors Chelsea. Furthermore, a poor result against their London neighbours could see them dropping back to fourth, should all results go against them (something hard to foresee a few weeks ago, where their pace-setting rhythm seemed too strong for everyone else). Their defence is set to endure a blow, with Laurent Koscienly doubtful to start. In midfield, Jack Wilshere will be suspended for two matches after his inappropriate gesture at the Etihad (Santi Cazorla should return to the starting XI in his place). Abou Diaby and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are long-term absentees and will sit this one out.
Probable line-up: Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Ramsey, Arteta – Walcott, Özil, Cazorla – Giroud
José Mourinho’s return to Chelsea was long awaited by most fans, despite the recent successes of beloved Roberto di Matteo and maligned Rafa Benítez. Aware that his former and current boss, the ever unattainable Roman Abramovich, favours a swashbuckling, attacking brand of football, the Special One – now self-appointed Happy One – has tried to follow the Russian billionaire’s desires. However, following the rather unanticipated number of goals conceded by the team (and a run of form that has seen the team crash out of the Capital One cup against Sunderland last Tuesday and lose 3-2 at Stoke), Mourinho mentioned the possibility of going back to his default mode of a more reactive sort of game (the team’s number of clean sheets and goals conceded during the Portuguese’s first season at the club is still a Premier League record), a 1-0 result the most typical outcome. After signing apparently every single attacking midfielder on the face of the Earth (including Tottenham Hotspur target Willian, who has played a marginal role for most of the season), the squad’s centre looks rather thin, with John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ramires all seeming to come up short as far as properly shielding their defence is concerned. Still, a more reactive approach might just do the trick at the Emirates, where Mourinho will probably be happy to sit back and allow Arsenal time on the ball, so as to catch them off guard and give Eden Hazard and Óscar free reign to attack the Gunners’ back line at speed, particularly considering Mikel Arteta continues to struggle with the defensive duties of his position. Michael Essien will miss the match after his 5th booking of the season in just 6 matches. Ryan Bertrand and Marco van Ginkel will also be sidelined.
Probable line-up: Cech – Ivanovic, David Luiz, Terry, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Ramires – Mata, Óscar, Hazard – Torres
This has all the makings of a cracker of a match, as both teams need a win so as to keep Liverpool from running away and to keep Manchester City and Manchester United in check. Also, neither team’s form has been splendid lately and both sides could definitely use a boost for the upcoming challenging fixtures that might just put much of the league table in perspective. One of the most bandied about facts by now is that José Mourinho never lost against Arsène Wenger in their nine meetings (5 wins and 4 draws). Also, Chelsea have won the last 3 matches against Arsenal in all competitions, the Blues having won 8 and lost just two of their last 11 meetings against the Gunners. As if that weren’t enough, Juan Mata seems to be the player on a roll here, scoring in each of his four starts against Arsenal in all competitions. Still, Arsenal are undefeated in their last 7 home matches in the Premier League and should not be dismissed as sitting ducks. In fact, Wenger’s charges have looked more crisp, incisive and sharp this season than any other time over the past few years – and Wenger’s urge for the team to “man up” may well be the push the players need to punish Chelsea and put the latest string of poor results behind them.