Mesut Ozil will definitely be available for Arsenal and there is further good news in the recovery of Alexis Sanchez. Arsene Wenger admitted he was wary of bringing him back too early from his hamstring injury but the implication is that he will at the very least be on the bench on Sunday. Francis Coquelin is back in training, Danny Welbeck will be back in full training but the game will come too early for them and Tomas Rosicky who is in contention for the Under-21s. Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere are still out. Diego Costa is a doubt for Chelsea with the shin injury he sustained last week against Everton, while Eden Hazard is rated at 50-50 with the groin problem that forced him off early in the 3-0 win over Crystal Palace.
Chelsea have improved under Guus Hiddink, but not much. Although they’re unbeaten in six league games since Jose Mourinho was sacked, they’ve won only two of them – and for the first, against Sunderland, he wasn’t even on the bench. Although there were positive signs in the 3-0 win at Crystal Palace, home draws against West Bromwich Albion and Everton have shown just how deep-rooted the problems remains. Arsenal, meanwhile, are in a slightly strange position. Win on Sunday and the back-to-back away draws at Liverpool and Stoke will seem like positive results, points picked up in difficult circumstances, but if they draw or lose, three games without a win will suddenly look like a stutter.
Although they did win in the Community Shield, Wenger’s first victory over Mourinho, Arsenal’s recent record against Chelsea is dismal, their last league success the 5-3 victory over Andre Villas-Boas’s side in October 2011. Three of the four games at the Emirates since then have finished goalless, and Arsenal have failed to score against Chelsea in any of their last five league meetings. Even this season, when Chelsea won only four of sixteen league games under Mourinho, they beat Arsenal 2-0, a game turned by the controversial red card shown to Gabriel after his clash with Diego Costa.
CHELSEA’S DOUBLE SCREEN
Against Everton, Hiddink fielded an extremely defensive central midfield with Mikel John Obi alongside Nemanja Matic just in front of the back four and Cesc Fabregas as the main creator – presumably in part an attempt to stifle Ross Barkley. The result was an exceptionally poor first half, with neither side able to establish any rhythm, followed by a bewilderingly open second as both teams lost defensive discipline. It seems likely that Hiddink will opt for a similar spoiling tactic on Sunday in an attempt to negate Ozil and prevent anybody getting a run at a central defensive pairing that can be slow on the turn.
Diego Costa represents everything Arsenal hate about Chelsea. He’s tough, awkward and cynical, a player who will seek an advantage wherever he can find it and not be too bothered about doing things the right way. He is sure to be booed, but that’s not the sort of thing to faze him. He is one player whose form has improved markedly since Mourinho’s departure, scoring five goals in his last five games in all competitions. It makes a huge difference to Chelsea’s chances if he is fit.
The suggestion this week is that Branislav Ivanovic is to be offered a new contract, which is something of a surprise given his performances early in the season. He has improved since a dreadful August, but remains leaden-footed and that renders him vulnerable to the pace of either Theo Walcott or Sanchez on the Arsenal left. That, in turn, will stymie Willian’s attacking thrusts as there will be an onus on him to protect his full-back.
It’s first against fourteenth and, while both sides have drawn their last two games, in normal circumstances this would look like a straightforward home win. Only three things complicate that. One, this is Arsenal, whose weird combination of mental strength and weakness is bewildering. Two, this is Chelsea, who at some point surely will remember they’re champions. And three, this is Arsenal against Chelsea, a fixture Arsenal never win. Given Chelsea’s injury worries, though, and given the problems they have had defensively, it’s hard to make a case for anything other than an Arsenal win which, at 2.02 seems generous. Given Arsenal’s tendency to start home games quickly, that can be inflated by backing them to be ahead at half-time and full-time at 3.30.