When the fixtures were announced back in the summer, this weekend’s clash between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium looked like being a crunch Premier League title clash (4pm Sunday, Sky Sports 1).
The champions have had a terrible campaign, however, which means Arsenal have an excellent chance to strengthen their position at the top of the table.
The margin currently separating them from second place is very small indeed: Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City, the biggest surprise package in Europe’s major divisions this season, are level on points with the Gunners but in possession of an inferior goal difference. Leicester and Manchester City could be ahead of Arsenal by the time this game gets under way, though, with the former hosting Stoke City and the latter – who are a point behind Arsene Wenger’s (pictured) side at present – travelling to West Ham United on Saturday. That would put pressure on Arsenal to respond, although recent history suggests it could be a tough ask for a side who have not beaten Chelsea in a competitive encounter since a 5-3 triumph at Stamford Bridge in October 2011.
Despite that poor head-to-head record, Arsenal are favourites heading into this match. A 4-0 thrashing at Southampton on Boxing Day was their only loss in all competitions in their last 12 matches, a run that has seen them record wins over Manchester City, Sunderland, Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Newcastle United in the Premier League. Two consecutive draws away from home – a 3-3 thriller at Liverpool and 0-0 stalemate at Stoke – mean that Wenger will be desperate to pick up three points again this weekend, particularly as Sunday’s opponents have been one of his major rivals ever since he arrived in north London 20 years ago this September.
Chelsea remain unbeaten since Guus Hiddink replaced Jose Mourinho a few days before Christmas, with the Blues’ five Premier League matches bringing a solitary win and four draws. An entertaining game against Everton last time out ended 3-3, with John Terry rescuing a point for Chelsea deep into stoppage time. Despite not suffering defeat for over a month – their last loss came in mid-December against Leicester – the champions are still within touching distance of the relegation zone, with just four points currently between them and 18th-placed Newcastle United.
Chelsea remain defensively frail under Hiddink, with five goals conceded in their last two matches. On the flip side, though, they have regained some of their attacking potency since the Dutchman took the reins at Stamford Bridge, with Diego Costa finding the back of the net on four occasions in his last four appearances. It is likely that the visitors will need to be more solid at the back this Sunday to get anything from their trip across the capital, with Arsenal having recorded nine clean sheets in the Premier League this term.
The Gunners are hoping that Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil will return from a pulled hamstring and inflamed toe respectively, with Tomas Rosicky and Danny Welbeck also set to make their long-awaited comebacks before the end of the month. Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla remain out for a few more weeks, however, but fellow midfielder Francis Coquelin could be back after returning to training this week.
Chelsea, meanwhile, will likely still be without Eden Hazard, who has not played since limping off the in the first half of the Blues’ 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace at the start of the month. Costa bruised a bone in his shin in the match with Everton and will probably be given a late fitness test, although the latest reports seem to suggest that the Spain international will not be available for selection.