As the final whistle blew at Old Trafford Sunday to seal a Manchester United 2-0 defeat of Sunderland, the focus of the title race immediately turned south to London as Arsenal and Chelsea prepare to clash at the Emirates. United now sit top of the league with 37 points having played only 17 matches, that means the pressure is going to be on in North London come Monday evening. United now has a five point cushion over Arsenal and six over Chelsea heading into today’s crucial match.
The title race is of course a marathon and not a sprint and neither side will be eliminated with a defeat but there is a lot on the line at the Emirates. For both sides a victory will help close the gap on United, a side that has been tagged as not playing great football this season but yet sits top with 10 wins 7 draws and an impressive zero in the loss column. A 5 or 6 point gap is not overwhelming at this point but staying in touch of the leaders at the halfway mark and beyond gives those chasing some comfort.
With Arsenal sitting third and Chelsea in fourth and with three big points on the line for each side, all the ingredients are there for this match to be an open affair which often is not the case when the top tier clubs meet. That being said an overly cagey affair would not be surprising but for these clubs a draw does little. United has a game in hand on both and that is against Blackpool, a match realistically United should win. United will not bank on that of course but their title rivals from London should not expect anything less and instead should try to go out a grab a win rather than remaining cautious and hope the other side slips up.
While both sides are behind United and Manchester City (City has played 2 more matches at this point) in the table they are also battling perception. For Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger they need to show that the positive passing football they display against the likes of bottom sides can be reproduced against clubs with similar talent and aspirations. They need to lay a marker down to show their intent for this title and what better way to do that than to dispense the defending champions following a defeat to United.
Wenger needs wins against the likes of a Chelsea or United to help validate his vision for Arsenal. He has rebuilt this team with a youthful side in the wake of his 2004 Invincibles, but it is time to grow up. It is going on 3 years now that we have been told this side is young and it will come into its own.
As Robin Van Persie, Theo Walcott and club captain Cesc Fabregas all entered the match at Old Trafford as substitutes due to fitness and injury concerns you could sympathize with Wenger, who increasingly has taken criticism of his squad personally along with the view they do not match up with Chelsea and United. You can see what he is building at Arsenal but it has yet to come to fruition because he cannot field the likes of the Van Persie, Walcott or defensive pillar Thomas Vermaelen together on a consistent basis.
Chelsea meanwhile does not have to validate their title credentials to anyone. They are proven champions with a core of players that have 3 winner’s medals to their names. They do need a win though to stem a tide of lackluster results and take the heat off boss Carlo Ancelotti. During this run of poor form they went from being the runaway title favorites to being a squad that may have been exposed as being old with little to no depth. There is no doubt Chelsea still have the firepower but an injury crisis revealed there are some holes beyond Chelsea’s first choice XI. Chelsea may very well address their depth issues in a few days when the January transfer window opens up. That combined with an away win at Arsenal could be just what the doctor ordered to kick start their title push and carry out a successful Holiday match program.
Ancelotti would also welcome a win to help quiet the speculation about his future. To his credit he has remained above all the talk surrounding his situation and rightfully so. To question his future with the club seems laughable but this is Chelsea and owner Roman Abramovich does not wait around to clean house if he feels there is a problem. While it seems Ancelotti is safe, make no mistake a loss tomorrow will not go quietly amongst the press.
One can only hope that this match lives up to the hype that so many in similar spots have failed (a good example from this season so far the Manchester Derby). While we should not expect a wide open up and down match with numerous chances, these squads should go into it positively and go for it because sitting back and settling for a draw means 2 more points lost. Besides rising up the table, both managers have a lot to gain from going out and leading their side to a win. That is an enticing prospect and hopefully what unfolds is a top class match featuring two of England’s best at the moment with a lot on the line.