It’s been two weeks since Arsenal last played in the Premier League, with victory at Turf Moor – our eighth consecutive in the league – hitting the headlines.
The weekend in between saw us book a Wembley return with the win over Reading, but now it’s time to turn our attention to the Premier League once again.
In the meantime Chelsea have won their two games in hand defeating Queens Park Rangers and Manchester United, all but ending any outside hopes of a title race.
That doesn’t, however, render Sunday’s game as insignificant.
Sunday is Arsène Wenger’s 13th meeting with José Mourinho, and he’s yet to be on the winning side. As far as next season is concerned an Arsenal victory on Sunday (and thus a ninth Premier League win in a row) would send a huge message – Arsenal are ready to compete at the very top of the English game again.
The eight-game winning run is Arsenal’s fourth longest since the conception of the Premier League. Only 14 sides have reached nine wins on the bounce in that time, and no other team has reached eight this season – despite being top by some distance, Chelsea themselves have not even put together a run longer than four wins in the league. Victory on Sunday would see them go on to five.
Although it is too late for a title charge this season can still end on a high. Arsenal haven’t finished second for a decade and still have an FA Cup Final to come.
It feels – and looks – like everything is finally falling into place.
Some changes will certain be made after 120 minutes were played in the FA Cup semi-final last weekend. David Ospina will don his gloves again with current ‘cup goalkeeper’ Wojciech Szczęsny moving back to the bench.
Per Mertesacker was injured at Wembley and hasn’t yet trained; his chances were rated as 50/50 on Thursday. If he isn’t ready Gabriel will come into the team.
Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are still out, but everyone else should be available.
Nacho Monreal is likely to come back in for Kieran Gibbs, but it remains to be seen whether or not the fit-again Mathieu Debuchy will be favoured over Héctor Bellerín.
Olivier Giroud is likely to start in place of Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey is likely to start wide once again, unless Welbeck reprises his role on the flank.
Possible XI: Ospina; Debuchy, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin; Ramsey, Cazorla, Özil, Alexis; Giroud.
There are two main talking points, so let’s get straight to them.
Wenger has never beaten him, he isn’t particularly likeable, and he says horrible and inflammatory things. I don’t really have much to say as the subject has more or less been done to death, but I’ll touch on it at the end.
Secondly, Cesc Fábregas.
He was our captain, we nurtured him, he left, and he came back to England but now plays for one of our rivals under a manager we hate. The Spaniard wanted to return to Arsenal last summer but we didn’t want him, he wasn’t left with much choice. He was excellent for us and the inevitably poisonous reception he will receive from some is not only sad, but also uncalled for.
As for Chelsea as a whole, they started the season brilliantly but have tailed off after Christmas. The results may not have suffered very often but the performances have – they now look a more pragmatic team, struggling to blow the opposition away and grinding results out rather than dominating games.
Defensively Mourinho’s teams will always be strong, but Arsenal have enough quality to break them down but will also have to remain intelligent and patient this weekend.
Eden Hazard has arguably been the best player in England this season and, if the defence do their job, has the ability to pick Arsenal off on his own.
Kurt Zouma may be asked to do a defensive midfield job again and Didier Drogba is fit enough to start – Diego Costa may have to settle for a place on the bench.
Possible XI: Courtois; Ivanović, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Zouma, Matić; Oscar, Fábregas, Hazard; Drogba.
Mourinho is the complete opposite of Wenger, and that’s largely what has contributed itself to the Portuguese’s record over Arsène.
One builds teams from scratch, nurturing them from a young age. The other has spent most of his career assembling them with financial muscle and ruthless solidity.
The playing field is much more even now.
Grudges, returns, managerial spats aside: it’s time to see a truly fair battle between the arch pragmatist and the footballing purist.