EPL Preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea: Pensioners to End Gunners Slim Hopes
There are a couple of massive matches in the Premiership this weekend, Liverpool take on Everton in the Merseyside Derby, Spurs travel to Villa, but most eyes will be on the Emirates as Chelsea seek to extend their grip on the EPL title, and end Arsenal's slims hopes into the bargain.
So far this season the Pensioners have been the team to beat, bar two strangely muted performances that resulted in defeat against Aston Villa and Wigan, who were beaten by Spurs 9-1 last week...
There have been minor changes in the set-up at Chelsea since Carlo Ancellotti took over, but their 442-Diamond style formation has managed to bring the best out of a number of players whose days looked to be numbered at Stamford Bridge.
Didier Drogba's exploits last season have been well documented, but his change in temperament and high level of performance have marked him out as one of the EPL's top players so far this year. An added bonus for Drogba, is that Ancellotti is the first manager to have successfully paired him with Nicolas Anelka, and their combined attack has put the frighteners on all and sundry this term.
Add that to the re-emergence of Michael Ballack as a force to be reckoned with, Deco's return to form, Michael Essien's added penetration, and Frank Lampard's phenomenal consistency, and Chelsea easily have the best midfield and attack in the league.
Their defense is also quite brilliant too, lest we forget John Terry, Ashley Cole and Ricardo Carvalho.
In short, the Gunners will have it all to do if they are to stop this blue machine this weekend.
Frank Lampard is definitely out, while both Didier Drogba and Ballack returned to action in the Champions League win over Porto after missing the 4-0 win over Wolves.
The win over Mick McCarthy's newcomers was a real paint by the numbers affair. A Chelsea win was never in doubt, and a Florent Malouda wonder-goal after five minutes set up what turned out to be a very easy victory.
The key to Chelsea's domination of the EPL this season can be traced to a number of areas.
They always boasted the two of the best attacking full-backs in the league in Cole and Bosingwa, but whereas both Hiddink and Scolari based their teams on these players attacking prowess, Ancellotti has installed a little Italian steel. It is now unusual to see both players leave the back four at the same time.
If they do, then one of the midfielders slot right in to give the defence a solid three man base.
It is in midfield that Chelsea is better than any club in the EPL at the moment. While they start in a four man diamond formation, all four players are usually comfortable central midfielders and fluidly rotate positions with each other, giving the Pensioners a solid shape throughout the game.
Ballack, Essien, Lampard, and Deco, are all specialist central midfield players, so the narrow style adopted by Ancellotti suits them all perfectly, and if they swap position, they are still playing a very similar role for the team.
For Arsenal to win this match they will have to keep Chelsea's midfield occupied, and move them around the pitch, thus eliminating their ability to rotate so freely. While the Gunners wide players push right up onto the Blues marauding full-backs.
As mentioned before, Chelsea's forward line is formidable. And it will be very interesting to see how they get on against the Gunners smaller but more mobile defensive unit. However, if Chelsea do decide to go long, Drogba's physical presence would be almost too much for either Gallas or Vermaelan to handle.
For Arsenal to win this game, they will have to deal with Chelsea first, something Arsene Wenger does not usually ask his team to do.
So confident is the eminent Frenchman in his team's ability, he rarely changes his fluid system to suit his opponents.
But Chelsea are no mere team, and if Wenger wants to come out of this game with the three points he so desperately needs to keep Arsenal in touch for a title challenge, he will have to change some things around.
For a start, the Gunners wide players will need to push up and suffocate both of Chelsea's full backs, who so often begin many of the Blues attacks.
Andrei Arshavin has produced nothing like the mesmeric form that he is capable of this season, and it might come as a surprise to many, but he has only played the full 90 minutes twice this season.
His form has been patchy at best since mid-October and it still remains to be seen how he deals with Russia's elimination from the World Cup, and his row with three of his countrymen on the eve of the second leg.
On the right, Theo Walcott has returned to first team action just in time, but it is hard to see him play any more than a bit part come Sunday, so perhaps Emmanuel Eboue will be handed the dreaded task of keeping ex-Gunner Ashley Cole quiet.
Arsenal's only definite starter in midfield is Cesc Fabregas. Their young Spanish captain has been nothing short of phenomenal this season, and has easily been the best player the league has to show after its first 13 games.
Although Chelsea's great strength is midfield, it is somewhat ironic that it is here that Arsenal can do most damage.
This season, the Gunners have used a three man midfield with two wider supporting players for a lone striker.
With three in the middle, Arsenal has been able to out-man almost every opposition team they have come across. Even their bitter rivals, Spurs, changed their system to combat Arsenal's strength.
It worked as a stifling tactic for almost the entire first half, but once Arsenal went in front Spurs had to resort to a traditional 442 to chase the game, and then the Gunners took over and moved into cruise control as they ran out 3-0 winners.
The key for the Gunners will be who Wenger plays in the middle with Fabregas and Song.
Nasri and Denilson are only coming back to full fitness, Diaby is definitely out, Rosicky has not been able to retain his same level of fitness as from before his injury, and Ramsey is unlikely to be thrown in against Chelsea, at this stage of his development.
It would seem that Wenger will probably start with Rosicky, but replace him with either Nasri or Denilson, but in truth there is little to separate all three in the run up to the match.
Up front is where Arsenal's problems lie.
Robin Van Persie will be badly missed, the Dutchman has been in splendid form this year, but he only averages around 25 EPL games a year, so Wenger must have always factored losing him at some stage of the season.
His replacements are Niklas Bendtner, who has been struggling with a groin injury since September, and has only played 60 minutes of football since their 1-0 win over Fulham, and Eduardo.
The Croatian/Brazilian is another player who has struggled to reach his old fitness levels since returning from injury, and has only played a bit part this season, and most importantly he has yet to play more than 70 minutes in a single game.
If Arsenal do go 451 as expected, Eduardo will be expected to keep Terry and either Alex or Carvalho occupied all afternoon, and stop them from over loading the midfield in Chelsea's favour. Likewise, the Gunners wide players.
On paper it is hard to see Chelsea losing this game. While both teams are suffering from the loss of key personnel, the Pensioners have far more depth on the bench and thus the losses are more easily absorbed.
While it must be said that Arsenal do lack options on the bench when Van Persie is absent, so it is no wonder that rumours have begun to emerge regarding Arsene Wenger signing another forward in January.
If Chelsea win, then Arsenal will become embroiled in a five way tussle for third and fourth, and they will have slipped too far behind the Blues to be even considered challengers.
The win is not as essential to Carlo Ancellotti's as it is to Arsene Wenger's young guns, but you get the feeling that this Chelsea side want to make a statement of intent regarding their title credentials, and Arsenal could be right team in the wrong place at the wrong time.