This fixture feels like it’s becoming a reincarnation of the Chelsea-Liverpool rivalry of the 2000s. The roots of that rivalry were planted in 2002/2003 when a 2-1 Chelsea win on the final day of the season ensured the Blues qualified for the 2003/2004 Champions League and intensified by Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea and an incredible run of 45 fixtures between the two clubs since 2005.
Familiarity breeds contempt and leads to cagey matches, and while Chelsea-Arsenal haven’t reached those staggering numbers just yet, eight matches over the last two years and a reversal of the dominance that Chelsea once enjoyed over their North London rivals has given this fixture an element of spice that it hasn’t had in recent seasons.
Antonio Conte’s record against Arsene Wenger hasn’t been great over the past two seasons, and Arsenal’s win the FA Cup Final last season has simply rubbed salt on the wound, especially given the number of times Chelsea have ruined great moments for Arsenal, from Wayne Bridge denying the Invincibles a chance at Champions League glory to the 6-1 thumping in 2014 in Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th match in charge.
This time, the stakes might not be quite as high, but a trip to a cup final is always important, and after a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, this two-legged tie hangs in the balance.
It’s almost a role reversal for these two sides in terms of players that are available for the match. Chelsea’s injuries have mounted up since then, with Cesc Fabregas and Alvaro Morata ruled out due to injury and fitness concerns for Gary Cahill and Danny Drinkwater.
Arsenal, meanwhile, should nearly have a full-strength squad available for selection. Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny both played in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Crystal Palace. Mesut Ozil should also be available after missing the first leg, while Arsenal will also be missing Alexis Sanchez from the first leg as he has joined Manchester United. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is cup-tied and not available.
With Morata unavailable, it’s likely that Chelsea will line up in the 3-4-3 formation that was used in the 4-0 victory over Brighton. Pedro returns from suspension and is available, but Willian has enjoyed a run of form and it would be harsh if he were to return to the bench for Wednesday’s match.
However, Arsenal could counter that 3-4-3 in one of two ways. In the FA Cup Final, they did so by playing a high-energy pressing game. Because it’s likely that Tiemoue Bakayoko plays alongside N’Golo Kante in midfield, Chelsea lack a true passing presence in midfield. It was the same in the cup final when Nemanja Matic played alongside Kante and that duo had a really difficult time getting the ball to forward players and breaking the press because they were forced to play the ball backwards.
The second way Arsenal can deal with the 3-4-3 is to use the versatility of Mesut Ozil to use pockets of space. In the recent 2-2 draw, Arsenal enjoyed a lot of the ball and Chelsea were almost forced into a back five because Ozil would use the space in behind Lacazette, or he would drop deep enough to be a third man in their version of 3-4-3. Antonio Conte was clearly aware of that and played 3-5-2 for that very reason and even with his substitutions, maintained that shape even when chasing the game.
This match is difficult to predict because Conte could go to the Emirates and keep it tight and cagey, allowing Arsenal the ball and looking to play on the counter, or he could go and play a more open game which could lead to entertainment for the neutral.
Regardless, Chelsea are on the cusp of a cup final, which wouldn’t be a bad result for a team that has had its share of trials and tribulations this season.