Given their general struggles against other top-six sides, Arsenal have made things unexpectedly difficult for Chelsea in recent encounters and will again hope to do so when they meet at the Emirates on Wednesday (19:45 GMT, live on Sky Sports).
Arsenal held out for a credible 0-0 draw when the two sides met at Stamford Bridge earlier this season and also emerged victorious when they met in last season’s FA Cup final. The league meetings ended in two home victories: 3-0 for Arsenal and 3-1 for Chelsea.
The Gunners have, though, displayed enough of their familiar frailties so far this season to suggest they shouldn’t necessarily be counted upon to cause their visitors similar problems in midweek. After three consecutive victories during the second half of November, they recorded just two wins in their seven matches in December.
Arsenal ended the year with a disappointing 1-1 draw away to West Bromwich Albion on Sunday, on what was a record-breaking day for manager Arsene Wenger. It was his 811th match in charge of the club, which represented a new Premier League record. Unfortunately, his side were unable to produce a vintage performance to celebrate the occasion.
In a fairly dull encounter, neither side was able to establish much of an attacking rhythm. Goals eventually arrived in the final 10 minutes but were equally distributed. A deflected Alexis Sanchez free-kick put Arsenal ahead only for West Brom to level from the penalty spot after Calum Chambers had, very harshly, been adjudged to have handled inside the area.
It was the third time in December that Arsenal had drawn away to a side currently in the bottom eight. Those are the sort of results that are likely to count against them come the end of the season in what is a highly competitive battle for places inside the top four. While the penalty decision dominated post-match headlines, in truth it provided convenient cover for a performance that lacked the energy or determination required to secure all three points.
A day earlier, Chelsea cantered to a 5-0 home thrashing of Stoke City to move ahead of Manchester United into second in the Premier League table. Antonio Rudiger and Danny Drinkwater got things going with goals inside the opening 10 minutes, before further strikes from Pedro, Willian (from the penalty spot) and Davide Zappacosta wrapped things up.
Antonio Conte’s side endured a relatively difficult start to the season, losing three times en route to picking up 16 points from their opening nine matches of the campaign. But from the end of October onwards, they have turned things around, winning nine of their subsequent 12 matches in picking up a further 29 points and rising to their current position of second.
While a successful defence of their league title is most likely out of reach given Manchester City’s current 14-point advantage at the top of the table, their recent improvement suggests they are well-placed to push on from here and end the campaign as City’s closest challengers.
Chelsea’s offensive output has remained consistent, at between 1.8 and 1.9 goals per match, albeit with a clear increase in the quality of chances created since their upswing in form. It is in their defensive numbers that drastic improvement has been seen. Chelsea have gone from conceding 10 goals in their first nine matches of the campaign to just four in the following 12.
Much of their early-season struggles seemed to centre on the need to incorporate a number of new signings to cope with the additional strain of European football. That was a particular problem in defence, where it took some time for sufficiently strong relationships to be built. Now, with the majority of those issues solved, they again look a solid and well-balanced side.
With an extra day’s rest behind them, it is therefore Conte’s side who look the marginal favourites to come away with all three points on Wednesday in what can be expected to be a tightly contested and relatively low-scoring affair. While a draw is a distinct possibility, if there is to be a victor, it will most likely be Chelsea.
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