With 11 wins and two defeats since the turn of the year, Arsenal have amassed more points per game in 2015 than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues, but still they trail Chelsea by 10 points.
Chelsea will be champions if they beat Arsenal and win at Leicester City on Wednesday, but even though defeat on Sunday would probably only delay their coronation, it could herald the start of a north London revolt.
Fixtures between Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have traditionally represented a collision of competing ideologies, with Wenger the style-obsessed romantic and Mourinho the cold, hard pragmatist.
While clubs around the world fell over themselves to ape the possession-based approach of Barcelona and Spain during the high point of ‘tiki-taka’ — emboldening Wenger to cram even more small, technical midfielders into his starting XIs — Mourinho remained true to his counter-attacking convictions.
Those principles were in evidence last weekend when Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 at Stamford Bridge despite seeing only 30 percent of the ball.
It had been a similar story last October, when Chelsea beat Arsenal 2-0 after enjoying less possession and mustering only five attempts at goal to their opponents’ 10.
Wenger reacted to Mourinho’s provocations that day by shoving the Portuguese in the chest during a touchline confrontation, and it was not the first time the Chelsea manager has got under the Frenchman’s skin.
Speaking on Friday, Mourinho declared that Wenger was “not my rival”, adding: “He’s the manager of a big club in the same city where I work. It is a big club with the same objectives we have.”
The retort was seen as an attempt to deflect attention away from the pair’s frosty relationship, but with Wenger having never beaten Mourinho in 12 attempts and having claimed only two major trophies to the Chelsea manager’s six during the time they have both spent in England, might it have been intended as a statement of fact?
– Coquelin contribution –
The hope, for Arsenal’s fans, is that the savvy shown by their team in recent weeks will yield a transformative victory.
After years of parsimony, Arsenal can now compete with Chelsea for the game’s star names — as demonstrated by the acquisitions of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez — and the gap may be closing on the pitch, too.
Arsenal have experienced an uncommon number of heavy losses to rivals in recent years — including a 6-0 annihilation by Chelsea last season — but belatedly, the penny appears to have dropped for Wenger.
With former fringe player Francis Coquelin anchoring the midfield, Arsenal have begun to beat their rivals in a fashion that even Mourinho might be moved to admire.
They had only 35 percent of possession in a 2-0 win at Manchester City in January and saw only 42 percent of the ball in a 2-1 victory at Manchester United in the FA Cup last month.
And with Ozil, Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla supplying the bullets for Olivier Giroud, they can still put teams to the sword, as shown by the 4-1 victory over Liverpool three weeks ago.
“We know we have passed many tests recently where we were questioned,” says Wenger, whose side have won their last nine games in all competitions.
“It’s the first time we’ve won away from home against Manchester City (since 2010) and other things like that. We have passed many tests and we have another test on Sunday that we want to pass.”
Arsenal centre-back Gabriel is in line to deputise for Per Mertesacker, who has an ankle problem.
Mourinho will make a late decision on whether to pick top scorer Diego Costa, who has missed two games with hamstring trouble, while Cesc Fabregas is expected to start against his former club.