Arsenal return to Chelsea, wounded and fearful

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This weekend sees the return of Arsene Wenger and his band of fragile, ferreting footballers to Chelsea and Stamford Bridge, the scene of the most brutal defeat they have suffered in recent memory, except perhaps the 8-2 to Manchester United in 2011. The 6-0 walloping that Mourinho’s team dished out last season was one of the year’s more astounding matches, containing nearly everything; horribly botched refereeing decisions, red cards, four first-half goals, and all of it on Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. Arsenal had been shown up by the rampaging attacks of Manchester City and Liverpool earlier in the season, but so had many others far more defensively resilient than the Gunners. It was this collapse, against the muscle-bound blue shirts, that really exposed the frailty seemingly inherent in Wenger’s team, and made their ambitions of a Premier League title that season seem embarrassingly fanciful. A subsequent 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Everton would follow the 6-0. Arsenal, not for the first time, limped to fourth place, and Wenger spent the off-season wringing his hands and peering nervously at the legs, gifted yet twiggy, of many of his players.

Chelsea, on the other hand, spent the off-season strengthening considerably, in every section of the team. Defensively, Courtois was brought back from Madrid and Felipe Luis replaced Ashley Cole. Diego Costa was secured, and has since decided to lollop around the Premier League like a wounded colossus, laying waste to defences with a series of lazy, swooping swipes. Also perhaps, with this upcoming match in mind, most sensationally, Mourinho recruited former Gunner Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona. He too has flourished on his return to England and, as Aaron Ramsay again lies prone on top of the convulsing heap of injured Arsenal bodies, Fabregas gives the impression of being everything that Wenger values in an attacking midfielder, but with one additional, and vital, virtue; durability.

Apparently, Wenger passed up the opportunity to resign Fabregas, coming to the conclusion that maybe he had enough flighty, forward-thinking midfielders. How restrained of you, Arsene. Fabregas, like the other new Chelsea signings, will have no personal memory of the 6-0 massacre from last season, but he might sense the scar tissue, fresh and pink, in the build up to the match. Certainly, Mourinho will be urging his players to hand out another drubbing, not wanting to tarnish his 11-game undefeated record against Wenger.

Chelsea eventually overcame Sporting Lisbon in Europe on Tuesday, after controlling the match entirely but lacking crucial incisiveness until late in the game. This dawdling display of finishing meant that Diego Costa played the whole of the match, where if he, or his team mates, had been a little more ruthless, his tender hamstring might have been a little more well-rested ahead of the Arsenal tie. Mourinho has spoken, maybe a little too loudly, of how Costa’s condition means he can’t train normally, and isn’t capable of playing three games a week for Chelsea.

Diego’s doing almost nothing,” Mourinho said. “He’s just resting and recovering from the tight muscle he has every time he accumulates fatigue … If he doesn’t have this period, he will be always play one game and the other game he is in trouble. The muscle is in danger of rupturing.

A ruptured muscle would disastrous for Mourinho, such is Chelsea’s reliance upon the Spaniard’s goals. So one has to assume that such threatening assessments are, at least in part, for show, because why would Mourinho risk such an injury? In the lead up to Chelsea’s win over Everton, Costa was all but ruled out, only to take the field and score twice. Mourinho is a master of the subversive comment, this may well be another one of his off-putting, destabilising verbal offerings.

There’s nothing surreptitious about Wenger’s own talk of his team’s wounded plight. Last week’s north London derby left his team even more perilously crucified by injury, with Arteta and Ramsay joining the list. Wenger faces the ironic prospect of having the glass-legged Abou Diaby as his starting holding midfielder, such is Flamini’s poor recent form. With the defence still only barely hanging on, if he does start, Diaby will need to play very well, very quickly. Of the injuries after the derby, Wenger spoke exasperatedly:

I don’t know,” said the Frenchman. “There’s no logic. We have to analyse what happened. I don’t understand.”

Equally frustrated, thousands upon thousands of Arsenal fans, and neutrals alike, replied: “It looks like you’re after some analysis, Arsene. Allow us to explain: you saw fit to start the season with only 6 senior defenders. You have made a recent habit of only signing incredibly lightweight players, most of them dainty attackers. You have, season after season, chosen not to fill the yawning hole in defensive midfield. Surely, injury crises, an annual occurrence for your team, can come as no surprise and, despite your baffled response, the situation is entirely logical.”

The loss of Arteta and Ramsay is very damaging for Wenger, particularly Ramsay, who expertly greases the wheels for Arsenal as they transition the ball from defence to attack. In a player focus article that I wrote on Ramsay against Aston Villa, even when he plays middlingly, he is still an active participant in Arsenal’s best moments. Both he and Arteta are charged with the vital but thankless role of collecting the ball from the centre backs and turning, often under pressure. Flamini and Diaby are nowhere near as good at this, and the tireless twin nuisances of Eden Hazard and Willian will be making sure that whatever time and space the Arsenal midfielders do have is stripped away hastily. Additionally, the steam-powered, clanking, cast-iron enforcer that is Nemanja Matic will be relishing the opportunity to bully Mesut Ozil into submission.

The timing is awful for Arsenal. The same week that Galatasaray visit the Emirates, Chelsea loom dauntingly, flexing and snorting, only a few days later. His squad is decimated, his available team far from first choice. His new signings are yet to bed in fully, and his best players are either injured or wading through a spell of bad form. Chelsea, having played and won in Europe a day before Arsenal, are top of the table and purring, with an ex-Wenger prodigy at their heart. It would be cruel of them to subject Arsenal to another 6-0 scoreline, or one similar. Disturbingly for Wenger, the very thought of such a merciless footballing act simply makes Jose Mourinho crack a slow, curling grin.

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