Grand Slam Sunday round 2 is nearly upon us. In the blue corner we have the Chelsea and in the red corner we have Arsenal. The referee is in place, the coaches are by the ring with their men and it is just a matter of ringing the bell to start this battle that may well lead to one team being knocked out.
So far this may seem like I am talking about some sort of charity boxing match between volunteers from Arsenal and Chelsea. This Sunday however, we are not watching Sport Relief; we are watching a match that could change the title race in so many different ways. This match will be a battle and Wenger must have his troops ready to fight to the end.
So far this season we have been involved in a few crucial games outside the League and they have gone very differently:
Spurs 5 Arsenal 1
Manchester United 4 Arsenal 0
AC Milan 0 Arsenal 2
All of the games mentioned there were knockout games where one team would be out for the count in said competition. We may have lost two of those games but most importantly the Milan game is a clear sign of what this team can do in the big games. Against Spurs we came up against a full strength home side determined to beat a weakened eleven put out by their main rivals. It had a Tottenham victory written all over it.
Then there was Man Utd in the FA Cup, away at Old Trafford on an awful pitch. We were missing players who had been crucial in our recent form. We lacked our main goal threat of Adebayor and lacked the grit Flamini provides the midfield. Again, it was another game I did not expect to win and United were simply far more up for it and deserved the win.
We then went to the San Siro on the back of these cup performances and many doubted we had a shot. Most people had written off Arsenal after the wasted opportunity to beat the reigning champions at the Emirates. To be honest, this took all the pressure off and gave us the chance to go out and enjoy the night. The players thrived on the big occasion and we came away with a brilliant victory against the odds.
Why does that night in Milan stick out as the most relevant to the game on Sunday? We went to the San Siro looking to be the first English team to win there. This was another reason people saw Milan as favourites but that feat was achieved. We go to Chelsea looking to be the first side to win there in the League for 70 odd games. Both sides held a very good record at home, we have broken one, can we beat the other?
Milan look to play the same way as we have come to expect from Chelsea. They play a very effective and powerful game, mainly on the counter attack. Their defence looks to suck the life out of the opponents attack before their forward players attack at pace. They use Joe Cole very much the same way Milan use Kaka. He is the heartbeat of the team and the creative brain in the side.
In the San Siro we saw these tactics come into play as Milan seemed happy to let us have the ball and try and break with Kaka and Pato. That night it would have been easy to become frustrated and panicky in front of goal. The pleasing thing was how much the team continued to patiently chisel away at the wall in front of them until the goal finally came.
If you cast your minds back to last season’s match at Stamford Bridge, the game was similar. Although our very inexperienced defence (Djourou and Senderos) was heavily tested that day and lucky not to concede, the possession football deployed by Arsenal was similar to that in the San Siro. Hleb, Fabregas and Flamini kept the ball for long periods and toiled away until something opened up. Eventually the goal opened up and Flamini took the chance when it came. Only a fantastic strike out of the blue from Essien gave the Chelsea the draw.
There is no doubt that the way we played football that night in the San Siro surpassed anything from that day at Stamford Bridge but if we can produce the same type of performance we may well see a similar result. In both the cup games we lost it happened that we could not string two passes together. If we can get the ball down and prevent Chelsea from overpowering us it will go a long way to getting the 3 points we need.
As well as keeping the ball for substantial periods of the game, Wenger has other things to decide. I am sure he will encourage the defence to try and hit the ball long towards Adebayor. John Terry has often been a dominant force in the air but recently has looked suspect, against Kenwyne Jones and Dimitar Berbatov in particular. He does not seem to attack the ball in quite the same way as he used to. Adebayor is the man to exploit this and Wenger will look for a big game from him.
The other big dilemma for Wenger is his team selection. Each area of the pitch takes careful consideration in the mind of a manager when these games approach. At the back Wenger has reverted back to the partnership of Toure and Gallas. Many wondered why Toure was able to walk straight into the side after such good performances from Senderos. I think Wenger was thinking ahead of the Boro game and already had the Chelsea game in his thinking.
We all know the problems that Drogba has caused for Senderos over the years and Dorgba himself knows he has a hold over Phil. Toure and Gallas may not have the aerial ability Senderos has but they are big game players and will have no doubts in dealing with Drogba. Wenger brought Toure back into the side last weekend so that Toure and Gallas could play together before this game.
Wenger went with 4-5-1 in the San Siro and may well want to do the same against Chelsea’s three pronged midfield. The trio of Cesc, Flamini and Hleb worked so well against Milan and I am sure Wenger will want to deploy the same thing again. It will enable us to keep the ball better and try and prise open some space for Adebayor. Having three in midfield will also allow extra space for Fabregas to try and dictate play while leaving Flamini to do a holding job on Lampard.
Out wide Wenger is likely to go with Eboue but I fear his battle with Ashley Cole might become a bit of a joke. Cole likes to get right into his players as we saw on Wednesday and Eboue will look to make the most of any challenges. I also worry that Eboue might go missing under the heat of the contest. Walcott must be ready as an option off the bench. I feel his pace would give Cole a problem, especially if he is on a yellow card as I believe he will be.
On the other side it will probably be Van Persie. He played there at the Bridge last season and will look to get at the Chelsea right back. That position is still their weak link and Van Persie is clever enough to get the better of his man. If Adebayor looks to come out to the left Robin will not hesitate to drift inside and we may well see Van Persie popping up in the box. He is the man to take a chance should it come. His crosses from that side will also provide a good supply for Adebayor to feed off as well as his excellent set pieces.
With Van Persie on the pitch Wenger always has the option to put pressure on Chelsea’s defence in a 4-4-2. Tottenham caused them major problems with a great attacking pair; Adebayor and Van Persie can do exactly the same thing. Van Persie has that ability to score out of nothing and may play a big part on Sunday. Hleb can also play out wide and get at the full back also. We may see an interchange between the two on different occasions in the game.
Whatever set up Wenger chooses, I hope we try and attack Chelsea in the same manner as we did Milan. If Adebayor becomes isolated we can always change the way we play and I hope Wenger takes such a gamble before its too late. The width will be there from the full backs so moving Hleb out wide may lose the natural balance from Van Persie on the left but Clichy will look to get into a 2 vs 1 situation on the left.
Subs: Lehmann, Senderos, Gilberto, Walcott, Bendtner
This game is a must win in my opinion. Even if Liverpool force Man Utd to drop points, the 3 points are a must. If Man Utd lose we go back level on points and take momentum on but with a tough run of games we must be in touching distance. Being behind them with a visit to Old Trafford coming up is a scary place to be in. If Man Utd win against Liverpool, dropping points rules us out of the running for good this season.
All that’s left to do now is wait for the two sides to come to blows. Hopefully it is Chelsea that is laid out flat at the end of the bout.