Premier League leaders Chelsea ought to strengthen their position at the summit of the standings when they welcome Arsenal to Stamford Bridge for a crucial London derby this weekend (12.30pm Saturday on Sky Sports 1).
Antonio Conte’s men added another point to their tally for the season last time out, holding Liverpool to a 1-1 draw at Anfield on Tuesday night. The Blues took the lead through a quickly-taken David Luiz free-kick which caught their opponents off guard, but the hosts responded to level the scores via a Gini Wijnaldum header in the second half.
It was a fair result based on the balance of play over the 90 minutes, but the outcome clearly favoured Chelsea more than it did Liverpool. The Reds’ failure to emerge victorious, together with Arsenal’s shock defeat by Watford and Tottenham Hotspur’s goalless draw with Sunderland, saw Conte’s charges extend their lead at the top of the table to nine points.
Chelsea possess a fine balance between attack and defence that few other teams can match this season, which is the primary reason why they are in such a strong position as the final third of the campaign approaches.
Arsenal had the chance to take advantage of Chelsea dropping a couple of points against Liverpool, but instead found themselves beaten by Watford in front of their own supporters. It was an extremely surprising outcome, not least because the Gunners tend to be reliable against bottom-half sides at the Emirates Stadium, and it could be a costly one too. Even if Arsene Wenger’s men are able to get the better of their London rivals on their own patch, they will still be six points adrift of top spot.
Arsenal have a squad that, at the very least, is equally as strong as their Premier League title rivals’, and a failure to sustain a challenge for the championship this year would be a major disappointment for a club who have won only two FA Cups since 2004. This weekend’s meeting with Chelsea is therefore of extreme importance for both Arsenal and Wenger, with another loss set to further increase the pressure on the Frenchman as his current contract continues to run down.
Chelsea remain free of injuries ahead of this weekend’s encounter, which means Conte will not be forced into making any changes to his starting XI. The one alteration that the former Juventus and Italy boss may enact is swapping Willian, who began the 1-1 draw with Liverpool in midweek, for Pedro, who has hitherto had an excellent season after a tough debut campaign in England. Chelsea will be content to cede possession, pack men behind the ball and attempt to hit their opponents on the counter-attack, which is a strategy that has generally proved successful in recent years.
Aaron Ramsey will miss out for the Gunners after picking up a calf strain against Watford in midweek, while fellow central midfielder Santi Cazorla is a long-term absentee and Granit Xhaka remains suspended. The key selection issue for Wenger concerns the identity of his central striker. Olivier Giroud has been favoured in recent outings, but the speed and mobility of Alexis Sanchez may be favoured against a backline that struggled to deal with high and intense pressure in the narrow victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge earlier this term.
It is difficult to look past another Chelsea triumph at Stamford Bridge this Saturday lunchtime, although Conte would probably settle for another draw as his team look to keep the chasing pack at bay. A slender home win could be the way to go here, though, with Hazard a good choice with the bookies to find the back of the net. In summary, here are this Chelsea v Arsenal preview’s betting tips: