Chelsea’s European adventures started this past Tuesday against Qarabag, but early Sunday afternoon, the Blues return home to take on London rivals Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.
Any Chelsea/Arsenal match often has added importance, but this one in particular is important for Arsenal in terms of their direction for this season.
After losing to Stoke City and Liverpool to start the season, a third defeat would surely make the Gunners’ chances of challenging for the Premier League title very difficult.
Even more importantly, another defeat at Stamford Bridge to Chelsea will resurrect the growing discontent from the Arsenal supporters as to the direction of their club, especially if the performance mirrors their performance at Anfield this season.
Chelsea also have had their own questions to face this season. The 3-2 defeat at home to Burnley to open the Premier League season brought whispers of this being a repeat of the disastrous 2015-2016 campaign.
But since that time, the Blues have answered their critics and put together a solid run of four consecutive victories, including the most recent 6-0 win over Qarabag last Tuesday night.
Antonio Conte took a slight gamble against their Azerbaijani opponents on Tuesday, making five changes to the squad in an effort to rotate the squad during a busy September period, but his gamble paid off.
The likes of Alvaro Morata and David Luiz were able to be rested completely, and Eden Hazard again made an appearance off the bench, getting another 30 minutes of match time under his belt as he recovers from the broken ankle he suffered in June.
Tuesday night’s performances will give him a few decisions to make when choosing his team Sunday.
Willian once again showed why he was Chelsea’s player of the year in 2015-2016, giving Conte a choice on who will start among the trio of Willian, Hazard, and Pedro. Davide Zappacosta also played well in his debut, grabbing a goal and putting some pressure on Victor Moses for the right wing back spot.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger also has some tricky decisions to make when naming his team for Sunday. Despite making changes for their Europa League match against FC Koln, Theo Walcott picked up a calf problem and may not be available Sunday, and Francis Coquelin will also miss out due to a hamstring injury.
But his selection problems aren’t simply limited to injuries. Because Arsenal have often looked unbalanced, especially in the big matches, Wenger’s team selection will be vitally important in the context of getting a result.
Against Liverpool, their biggest issue was Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey vacating the midfield to join the attack, leading to numerous Liverpool counter attacks that resulted in goals. Mohamed Elneny played 90 minutes against Koln on Thursday and is an option as a holding midfielder, particularly as he is more defensive-minded.
In attack, Wenger’s choices are also not straightforward. Olivier Giroud is likely to be one of the attackers to miss out, despite giving the Blues some trouble in recent meetings with his aerial prowess and movement in the box.
Arsenal’s record signing Alexandre Lacazette has scored 2 goals this season and has looked like a good solution to the Gunners striker problems in recent times. But Wenger left him out of the match against Liverpool, starting Alexis Sanchez in his place, and questions will be asked if Wenger leaves the Frenchman out of a big match yet again.
Likewise, Danny Welbeck has put in some good performances to start this season and once again looks healthy, and his pace does bring a different dimension this Arsenal side. But starting Welbeck likely means leaving out one of Lacazette, Sanchez, or Mesut Ozil, which would be a big call for a manager who’s under pressure.
But all of the selection issues may simply be a moot point. Stamford Bridge has not been a kind place to Arsenal over the years, with the Gunners having not won at the Bridge since 2011.
Arsenal will be confident they can get a result, though, having beaten the Blues in their last two meetings – the FA Cup final back in May and in the Community Shield this past August.
But if Arsenal don’t demonstrate the same focus that they did in both matches and Chelsea doesn’t get off to a similar slow start, it could be another chastening afternoon for Wenger’s team, and the inevitable questions will once again arise.