Arsenal Vs Chelsea On 21st April At 12:45pm
Chelsea On 21st April At 12:45pm
Can a London derby really be a comedown for Chelsea? Victory over Arsenal would confirm one of the best weeks in Chelsea's history, yet still leave work to be done for Roberto Di Matteo, a man in danger of being an even more beloved stopgap Blues boss than Guus Hiddink.
Liverpool await at Wembley on May 5, so too a wounded Barcelona at the Camp Nou, but the game with Arsenal is a vital fixture in the race for Champions League qualification. Of course, Chelsea may not even require it, should they negotiate the small matter of Tuesday night in Catalonia and go on to claim victory in Munich against either Bayern or Real Madrid. All quite simple, surely.
So finishing fourth becomes a safety net for Chelsea, while Arsenal's grip on third is rather looser than was expected a week ago. And while internecine rivalries will have Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United all hoping Chelsea fail to win the Champions League, they have a more practical reason. Should Chelsea win the whole caboodle and finish fifth, any race for fourth is rendered moot, as the Europa League beckons.
Of the two, Arsenal should go into the match feeling fresher, though perhaps only in the physical sense. Beating Barcelona can only lift a mental state as compared to losing at home to Wigan. Arsenal, often painted by their more fanciful fans as a Barcelona-lite, can draw comparisons with their Catalan brethren in that a supposedly inferior team frustrated them, and managed the game away from them.
The comparisons can stop there, though members of both the Barcelona and Arsenal camps offered similar post-match complaints over their opponents' refusal to let them win by opening up. In fact, Wigan opened up Arsenal with ease in the first ten minutes at the Emirates, in the best attacking play of the entire match. While Chelsea scored with their only true attempt on goal, their heroic rearguard efforts against Barcelona merited their wafer-thin lead.
Di Matteo will likely rest some of his midweek marvels. Frank Lampard ran himself into submission to continue his late-season revival act, and though Didier Drogba bought himself plenty of resting time via a bravura display of midweek playacting and lying down, he ran hard all night. John Terry's fractured ribs, too, may not have taken much of a pummelling - not that he showed much sympathy for a fellow injury victim when grabbing Carles Puyol's wrist - but caution may preclude his involvement.
Arsene Wenger has no need to rest players. He has little else to aim for after a season of disappointment. The greatest achievement will be guiding his squad to a 15th straight Champions League campaign but the Wigan performance exposed the faultlines that a recent recovery have hidden. Until proven otherwise, the belief must remain that Arsenal usually crumble when the pressure is on.
Chelsea, meanwhile, under the leadership of a caretaker coach sacked by West Bromwich Albion just last year, are beginning to prove that they perform best of all when the pressure is on.
Arsenal player to watch: Aaron Ramsey. Mikel Arteta's season is now over after an ankle injury sustained against Wigan, while the end of Jack Wilshere's campaign is confirmed having never actually begun at all. Aaron Ramsey has few competitors for a midfield position but has hardly been in fantastic form. Worryingly, keen observers have noted that a fickle Emirates crowd are on the brink of giving him the Eboue/Arshavin treatment. Must do better, and quickly too.
Chelsea player to watch: Fernando Torres. Two influential performances in four days confirmed that Drogba is still the man for Chelsea's biggest occasions. It only adds to Torres' continuing status as the £50 million bauble without portfolio. Yet an even-handed assessment of Torres would point to the fact that of late he has been playing perhaps his best football in a Chelsea shirt. The workrate has been exemplary, the goal threat is almost returned, but it has not been enough to supplant Drogba in the big games. Tired Ivorian legs may allow him a chance here.
Key battle: Robin Van Persie v Gary Cahill. The double player of the year-elect cut a frustrated figure on Monday, even before Gary Caldwell baited him after the final whistle. The runs were not quite coming off and the shooting was awry. The goals have not been flying as they did throughout the winter. Indeed, that playground penalty against Wolves was the first strike for nearly a month. So after holding off Lionel Messi, this should be no problem at all for Cahill, who put in a tremendous shift against Barcelona. With Terry likely to rest those ribs, this is a chance to prove he is indeed the future.
Trivia: Arsene Wenger first faced Chelsea in the Premier League in April 1997 at Highbury and his team ran out 3-0 winners, with goals from Ian Wright, David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp. Roberto Di Matteo, who had arrived at Chelsea the previous summer, did not feature for the Blues.
Stats: Their last meeting finished 5-3, with a Robin Van Persie hat-trick handing Andre Villas-Boas - remember him? - the first home defeat of his Chelsea tenure. It was not to be his last.
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