Chelsea have real striking concerns ahead of Sunday’s game at the Emirates. Diego Costa is still out with his hamstring problem, Loic Remy is a major doubt with a calf strain and now Didier Drogba has an ankle injury.
If all three are out, it could mean a first start for the 17-year-old Dominic Solanke, or one Chelsea's many attacking midfielders thrust into a centre-forward role.
Arsenal have far fewer concerns.Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are still out, while Per Mertesacker is a doubt having tweaked an ankle.
Arsenal have won 11 in a row in domestic competitions, while Chelsea have dropped only six points and conceded only seven goals in 12 league matches since losing 5-3 at Tottenham on New Year’s Day.
In terms of aesthetics and rhythm, Arsenal may be in better form, but Chelsea have a tremendous capacity to get results without possession, as they showed again in the 1-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday. That victory means that if they beat Arsenal on Sunday and Leicester next Wednesday, the title will be theirs.
Their recent record against Arsenal is good. Since Arsenal won 5-3 at Stamford Bridge in October 2011, a game that placed Andre Villas-Boas’s tenure at Chelsea in jeopardy, Chelsea have won four and drawn two, including the 6-0 thrashing last season.
The 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge in October – the game when Arsene Wenger shoved Jose Mourinho on the touchline - wasn’t so emphatic, but Chelsea were still comfortably the better side, the midfield of Nemanja Matic, esc Fabregas and Oscar dominating Mathieu Flamini, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere to the extent that Arsenal didn’t manage a shot on target.
This is a new, improved Arsenal: the question is how improved.
For years, the aspect that really separated Arsenal from the elite was the quality of their pressing. They simply didn’t have the bite or the organisation that the very best teams did. There is some evidence that that is changing – most notably in the home game against Liverpool, when Arsenal pressed with such aggression in the first 15 minutes that Brendan Rodgers’s side could barely get out of their own half.
Chelsea’s back four are probably less likely to panic that Liverpool’s, and their midfield will provide more passing options than Lucas and Joe Allen did that day, but if Arsenal can press, if they can win the ball back early and high up the pitch, John Terry and Gary Cahill have proved susceptible to players running at them with pace.
Chelsea’s recent run has been more notable for its relentlessness than its quality, and at times Eden Hazard has seemed their only creative outlet. Chelsea will probably sit deep, happy enough with a draw – as they did just before Christmas at the Emirates last season when it finished 0-0 – looking to Hazard perhaps to conjure something.
Hector Bellerin, Arsenal’s right-back, had been influential going forward in recent games, his pace a tremendous asset, but this will be his biggest challenge defensively. Aaron Ramsey, perhaps, will be used on the right of a 4-2-3-1 so he can drop back to help out if need be, or its possible Wenger will opt for a 4-3-3, which would presumably feature Ramsey to the right of Francis Coquelin.
Chelsea’s shape, almost certainly, will be a 4-2-3-1, but the real question – aside from the doubts at centre-forward – is who will make up the central midfield triangle. Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas will almost certainly start, but will they be the holding pair or will Fabregas be deployed further forward?
Kurt Zouma performed his role of blocking Marouane Fellaini superbly on Sunday, but would he be equally adept against the trickery of Mesut Ozil or the pace of Alexis Sanchez? It may be that Ramies is used deep, with Fabregas in the line of three creators, which would allow either Oscar or Willian to play at centre-forward if all three first choices are injured.
Arsenal have lost just once at home all season – against Manchester United – and even in their recent run of poor form against Chelsea they have managed 0-0 draws at home against them in two of the past three seasons. It’s likely to be tight, although under-2.5 goals at 1.69 isn’t especially enticing.
Nor does there seem much value backing either side +0.5 on the Asian lines – Arsenal are 1.40 and Chelsea 1.59. Arsenal at 2.40 are probably just a touch short to be convincing and Chelsea to win at 3.00 is probably a touch short as well.
The draw is 3.40, but with goals likely to be scarce, the better value is to back 0-0 at 8.50 and 1-1 at 6.10.