Consider this: if Arsenal beat Chelsea on Saturday and Man Utd beat Brighton earlier on the same day (KO 3pm), United will be three points outside of fourth place. That is quite a turnaround on their fortunes since Ole Gunnar Solskjær arrived (or Jose Mourinho left, whichever way you prefer to look at it).
By contrast, if Chelsea win, they will move nine points ahead of Arsenal and remain 6 ahead of Man Utd, if United beat Brighton. There is a lot at stake. Who will rise best to the challenge?
On the face of things, it hasn’t been a bad season for Chelsea – fourth in the table, in the Carabao Cup semi-finals, a home draw against lower-league opposition in the FA Cup Fourth Round and they topped their group in the Europa League.
However, four defeats and nine wins in their last 16 matches in all competitions indicate that all is not entirely well with the club. The initial post-Conte euphoria has given way to a degree of frustration, most notably with Chelsea’s slow build-up play, exaggeration of passing, the continued selection of Jorginho despite his lack of effectiveness in recent weeks, the playing of Kante out of position and the utilisation of Hazard as a false number nine despite Olivier Giroud being (usually) available to lead the line.
It has been eleven games since Chelsea scored more than two goals in a league match, although they have kept nine clean sheets in their last 19 Premier League games. Twelve of Chelsea’s last 19 games have produced over 2.5 goals.
Things are not exactly rosy for Arsenal, either. They have won just three of their last eight matches in all competitions and eight of their last fourteen.
They have kept just one clean sheet in the eight games referred to and that was against Blackpool in the FA Cup. Also, they have now lost three of their last six league games (no clean sheets) and have kept just one clean sheet in their last 15 league matches.
Nine of Arsenal’s last 15 matches (all comps) have produced over 2.5 goals; six of them have produced over 3.5 goals.
Manager Unai Emery knows that he has to resolve issues with his defence and, also, make a decision about the future of the enigmatic Mesut Özil.
With four goals in his last five appearances, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the man in form for The Gunners.
For Chelsea, Eden Hazard has scored four goals in his last seven starts and keeps on providing assists with regularity.
Chelsea won this season’s fixture at Stamford Bridge 3-2. They quickly made it 2-0 in that match before Arsenal levelled things up before half-time ahead of Chelsea getting a late winner. However, Arsenal could have bagged a hatful of goals in the match.
Judging by the recent lack of clean sheets for Arsenal, it seems likely that they will concede. Chelsea, too, look far from impregnable, so you will be going out on a limb if you opt for 0-0 in this one.
As mentioned earlier, both teams have the look of a work-in-progress. Arsenal’s defence is shaky although the shape of the team is well-established. Within that, the presence of Torreira is looking increasingly important, although he has not started any of Arsenal’s last three matches following the 5-1 defeat at Liverpool. Maybe he’ll be welcomed back into the fold on Saturday.
Chelsea’s methodology and structure is also well-established and they have dominated the stats in most of their games, although their lack of imagination and ingenuity in the final third of the pitch is becoming a big concern.
I find myself hoping that Hudson-Odoi starts the game. Chelsea need an injection of positivity, confidence and greater speed into their attacks, which he will surely provide.
Will Sarri play him? At the moment he seems torn between blind loyalty, stubbornness, a puzzling refusal to play certain players and an insistence on emphasising a work ethic (in terms of personal improvement and development) rather than giving players the confidence to express themselves.
It’s possibly worth repeating that, if Chelsea win, they will move nine points ahead of Arsenal. That provides a big incentive (as if needed) against a side that leaks goals. The closing presence of Man Utd provides another. Will Chelsea be able to rise to the challenge?
Arsenal – Danny Welbeck is recovering well from ankle surgery but is not yet available. Rob Holding remains sidelined with a long-term knee injury. The fit-again Konstantinos Mavropanos may well come into the defensive reckoning. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is out until February following a metatarsal fracture.
Chelsea – Alvaro Morata looks to be on his way Atletico Madrid. Olivier Giroud has been linked with Barcelona. Callum Hudson-Odoi is being courted by Bayern Munich. Eden Hazard’s end-of-the-season departure to Real Madrid looks extremely likely. Victor Moses and Gary Cahill are out of favour. This is quite a work in progress, although players like Kante, Azpilicueta and Alonso have signed long-term deals.
As has Ruben Loftus-Cheek, although he is out for an indefinite period following a recurrence of a lower-back injury.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Arsenal won and it wouldn’t surprise me if Chelsea won. If Arsenal win, it is likely to be a score of no less than 3-2. If Chelsea win, it is, for me, unlikely that they will keep a clean sheet. If you fancy Arsenal, 21/10 about a home win will look very big.
Over 2.5 goals in the match (8/13) seems likely and over 3.5 goals (6/4) hardly unlikely.
Over 2.5 goals in match (8/13)
Over 1.5 goals in the first half (13/10) looks reasonably priced.
Eden Hazard, first goalscorer, 9/2
Eden Hazard, anytime goalscorer, 11/8
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, anytime goalscorer, 7/5
Hazard and Aubameyang both to score, 11/2