Chelsea v Arsenal: The Gunners’ last stand?

Before we count Arsenal out of this season’s title race after last week's debacle against Watford, a quick history lesson for anyone putting a red line through Arsene Wenger’s side.

Conte Wenger

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte (left) and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger Source: Getty Images

At the end of February 1998, the Gunners trailed Manchester United by 12 points, with the title seemingly done and dusted.

But a staggering nine-game winning streak saw them not only close the gap but eventually overhaul United, confirming the managerial genius of Wenger and laying the foundation of Arsenal’s highly successful next decade.

If indeed Chelsea defeat Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Saturday (Live and Free on SBS, 11:30pm), the gap between the two sides will stretch to the same margin.

However, not even most optimistic of Gunners’ fans would give themselves a hope in hell of going on a similar streak.

Superb as some of their players are today, the collective quality of Ian Wright, Denis Bergkamp, Nicholas Anelka, Marc Overmars (44 goals between them) and the famous defence, marshalled by David Seaman, still invokes a chill down the spine. Did we mention the midfield trio of Viera, Parlour and Petit?

Then again, as we all know, records are made to be broken and history is there to be written. Should this Arsenal team go about doing a number on Chelsea this season, there are no two ways about: it simply has to start here and now.

Arsenal will have to make do without Aaron Ramsey due a calf strain, and with Granit Xhaka still serving his four-game suspension, the visitors will need to plug some holes in midfield.

But a win would reduce the margin to six points, placing the Blues in serious threat of being reeled in by either the Gunners or Tottenham.

With 14 games still to play, the heat would instantly come back into a title race that has laid dormant for a month. Stranger things have happened.

Deeds of almost two decades ago aside, there’s a couple of reasons Arsenal can feel more than a little bit confident as they make the short journey across to west London, even if Wenger will be high in the stands as he serves a touchline ban.

First, Chelsea haven’t always shown themselves in big games. Yes, their magnificent victory against Manchester City at the Etihad swung the title race in their favour – and fatally wounded Pep Guardiola’s side – but all three losses have come against big teams on the big stage.

At home, Chelsea lost to Liverpool 2-1 early in the season, when Jordan Henderson cracked home a stunning goal, and Jurgen Klopp got the better of Antonio Conte.

More significant was Tottenham’s 2-0 victory over Chelsea a month ago, when a Dele Alli double stunned the league leaders, just as it seemed they would charge away with the title.

But perhaps even more crucially is noting what happened when these two teams last met earlier this season: Arsenal romped away to a 3-0 victory at home, with Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil scoring three first-half goals.

Still, it is worth noting that after three straight poor results in September (a draw with Swansea, then defeat against Liverpool and Arsenal), Chelsea won 13 games between October 1 and December 31, and after the defeat against Spurs, went on to topple Leicester City, Hull and clinch a point at Anfield. Truly, this side is as resilient as they come.

Conversely, Arsenal’s season is littered with a mix of success and screw-ups, none worse than the 2-1 loss to Watford at home last weekend. To go 2-0 down inside 13 minutes, against a small club, is simply not acceptable.

Even the previous week, when Sanchez’s penalty snatched a win against Burnley in the 98th minute (you read correctly), it was anything but perfect.

That stretch of matches between August and mid-December – broken only in the last moments of a clash against the out-of-form Everton – now seems so long ago.

But if Arsenal are to defy all the odds, let alone the expectations, they will have to pull something out of the fire this weekend.

If not, at least for them, it's all over.

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4 min read
Published 4 February 2017 at 8:24am
By Sebastian Hassett