Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Arsenal v Chelsea - Preview

By Richard Clarke

Arsène Wenger is preparing to throw his title-winning rule book out of the window on Sunday.

Conventional wisdom would tell the Arsenal manager to keep matters tight for the visit of Chelsea to Emirates Stadium. Carlo Ancelotti’s leaders have an eight-point advantage over their neighbours from North London and the top-flight’s meanest defence. Even though Arsenal have a game in hand on the Stamford Bridge side, a defeat would leave the Frenchman with a steep uphill assault for the rest of the campaign.

For many, safety-first would be the policy.

But Wenger feels his swish, stylish side can win the title on the front foot. Although they were shut-out for the first time this season in the weekend defeat at Sunderland, the 60-year-old has consummate faith in their attacking prowess. Meanwhile his defence have conceded more than a goal a game in their first 12 fixtures.

It seems that the “1-0 to the Arsenal” of the early 90s may be about to be replaced by something like 3-1 or even 4-3. When he spoke to the media on Friday, Wenger seemed happy to rewrite the lyrics.

“We know we can improve our defensive record until the end of the season,” he said. “But remember we have only played 12 games and, as long as we score three or four, it doesn’t matter.

“Sunderland showed us that if you don’t score you are vulnerable. But it’s quite amazing because if you look at the shots against us it is very minimal. For example Sunderland had one shot on target.

“I certainly feel it’s possible to win the League conceding more than one goal a game.”

The injuries picked up by Kieran Gibbs and William Gallas in midweek have hardly helped Arsenal’s defensive stability. The Englishman had surgery on his fractured metatarsal on Friday and will be sidelined for three months. Gallas left the pitch at half-time against Liege on Tuesday looking like a bad boxer. His eye had swollen grotesquely after he clashed heads with Andrey Arshavin. On Thursday, he still could not get his contact lens in that eye, a day later he was classed as “50:50”. Silvestre will be on stand-by for him while Emmanuel Eboue may switch flanks to deputise Gibbs.

The headline-grabbing statement from Wenger’s broadcast press conference was when he said: “This is our time”. Speaking to the print media, he was asked to explain why he thought it.

“Because we have top quality,” Wenger replied. “As simple as that.

“There is a moment where you grow, grow, grow and then you show you are ready. This is our moment.

“When you go into a game you don’t think what will happen if you don’t win. Chelsea will think the same. You go into the game to win and I have been in the game long enough to deal with the consequences – no matter what.”

Last time Chelsea visited Arsenal the consequences were dreadful. Five days after they had been beaten 3-1 by Manchester United on the same pitch in the Champions League Semi-Final second leg, Wenger’s men were humbled 4-1 – the Club’s worst home League defeat for 32 years.

“It hurt very much,” recalled Wenger. “It was the nightmare week of last season. But on the day we lost 4-1 and we could have been 3-0 up after 20 minutes. I looked at [the statistics] yesterday; they had five shots on target and they won 4-1. They took every single advantage of every chance they created and it was difficult to swallow. I believe it was a typical kind of game that could have gone both ways.”

Undoubtedly Sunday is an acid test for Arsenal. The defeat at Sunderland seemed to derail a train of optimism that had been gathering speed since those back-to-back losses in Manchester.

Now, for the first time since then, Wenger’s men are now coming up against ‘Big Four’ opponents.

This is no title-decider. It is too early and even the stats say these games did not determine the champions last season.

But it is certainly another measuring stick for Wenger’s new-fashioned team.

Wenger has rightly argued that this season’s games at Manchester United and Manchester City were on a knife-edge but, in the end, went against Arsenal.

Their manager’s sense of adventure deserves a change of fortune on Sunday.

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