With Jose Mourinho gone and Chelsea languishing, Premier League leaders Arsenal have an opportunity to assert their supremacy over their London rivals in Sunday’s encounter at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger managed just one win against his former Chelsea counterpart Mourinho in 15 attempts, and that came in this season’s Community Shield.
Mourinho took special delight in goading Wenger, who he famously labelled a “specialist in failure”, but the Portuguese is now out of the picture following his December sacking and with Chelsea 19 points off the pace in 14th place, Arsenal have a chance to hammer home their advantage.
“Even if Chelsea are not in the best position, look at their squad,” said Wenger, whose side lead Leicester City on goal difference.
“It’s a big game because of the quality of the players on the pitch. It has a big importance to us as well. We play at the Emirates and we know how important it will be to win this game.”
Arsenal have already beaten Manchester City, Manchester United and surprise contenders Leicester this season and victory over Chelsea would further enhance their title credentials.
It would also bring a satisfying conclusion to a run of matches against teams who have tended to give Arsenal problems during the Wenger era.
At Anfield, the scene of a season-defining 5-1 drubbing in February 2014, they secured a 3-3 draw that would have been a 3-2 victory had Joe Allen not equalized for Liverpool in the final minute.
Last time out at Stoke City, a sensitive Arsenal destination ever since the gruesome broken leg sustained by Aaron Ramsey there in 2010, Wenger’s men recorded a 0-0 draw that kept them top of the standings.
Arsenal have not been able to put distance between themselves and the chasing pack, but with Liverpool having gone 2-0 up against them and with United, City and Chelsea having all lost at Stoke since early November, they were not results to be sniffed at.
– ‘We can’t be patient’ –
Chelsea continue to occupy a special place in Arsenal’s nightmares and won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in the teams’ last meeting in September despite picking up just 11 points from their first 12 games.
The last encounter at the Emirates, meanwhile, saw Mourinho’s side ignore the home fans’ chants of “Boring, boring Chelsea!” to grind out a 0-0 win that kept them on course for last season’s title.
Nine months on, it is Arsenal who are in pole position in the title race and they have been emboldened by the news that key attacking players Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez could both return from injury.
Ozil is expected to start after sitting out the trip to Stoke with a minor foot problem, while Wenger is hopeful that Sanchez will play some part after nearly two months out with a hamstring injury.
Chelsea’s interim manager Guus Hiddink also had positive news on the injury front, revealing on Friday that Eden Hazard could feature after missing three games due to a groin problem.
Diego Costa is fit, too, despite bruising his shin in the 3-3 draw with Everton and can expect a choice reception after goading Gabriel into kicking him in September’s fixture, which saw the Brazilian sent off.
Last weekend’s madcap draw with Everton, in which John Terry equalized from an offside position eight minutes into added time, extended Chelsea’s unbeaten run under Hiddink to six matches.
But with Chelsea having drawn four of their five league games under the Dutchman, he is eager for them to start putting victories on the board.
“We want full results,” Hiddink said. “We can’t be patient, saying we’ll get better in four weeks. No. We have to perform now.
“We’d like a result at the Emirates. Everyone in this club has to be realistic about where we are in points, compared to the relegation zone and Europe. We are not panicking, though, and looking too far forward.”
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