Tonight sees yet another chance to remove what is becoming almost as irritating a statistic as how many years we have gone without winning a trophy – how long it has been since we beat either United or Chelsea (otherwise known as the latest stick to beat the team with).
It wasn’t so long ago that the Arsenal-Chelsea hoodoo was the complete reverse of now – we went years without losing to them, including some epic games and comebacks (Kanu’s late hattrick to turn a 2-0 deficit into an extraordinary 3-2 win springs to mind). Similarly, Spurs couldn’t beat us in the league, now they’ve done it twice in a row, and they also lost to Chelsea every time – again, that has been reversed. Hell, we’re even beating Blackburn and Bolton these days…
The point is, a hoodoo is usually nothing more than a coincidental sequence of events that bear no relevance the next time you take the field against the same opponents. I say mostly because while it certainly starts out as coincidence, a mental block can grow in the minds of players that turns a statistical anomaly into something far more serious – that was in evidence at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, when we appeared to abandon our attacking flair in favour of a cautious approach that neither suited us nor gave us the intended protection from their most potent threats.
That isn’t to say we should attack with reckless abandon – by doing so we open ourselves up to the counter attack, a weakness exploited by tonight’s opposition in previous years. But at the same time, we cannot show the same timid intent as against United, else we’ll undoubtedly end up with the same result. We need to commit to attack and commit to defence – move forward with speed but close down and retreat with intensity. So often we succeed at the former but fail miserably at the latter – if anyone’s work rate drops off Chelsea have the quality to punish us. It is a lesson that bears no repeating.
Many will point to our record against Chelsea and see no reason for it to change. This is our opportunity to put that right, to confound those who write us off. We’ve often claimed the fixture list gives us an advantage from now on, and that is true – we’ve already travelled to Chelsea, United, Liverpool and City as well as Everton and Villa, picking us ten points from those six games. Our toughest remaining away game is Spurs, but nothing else more challenging than Bolton or Stoke.
With all our rivals still to come to the Emirates, we would seem to hold an ace. But it will count for nothing if we do not turn the stadium into an impregnable fortress, a place where teams cannot turn up and waltz away with three points. Already this season we’ve been defeated three times there, although those were in different circumstances – complacency was certainly a contributing factor in all three games (two fixtures believed to be easy, one believed to be over at half time). Inexcusable as that may be, tonight is entirely different.
A defeat for either side tonight leaves them a long way adrift. United are five points clear of us, six of Chelsea, and will have a game in hand on both after this meeting. While such a deficit can be clawed back, it leaves no room for error and would also bring other rivals into play. On the flip side, a win would see us back in second place, hot on their heels. Make no mistake, this game is hugely important.
Much has been made of Chelsea’s poor form but I’m not sure that will have much bearing on tonight. A poor run hits confidence, but their record against us will immediately restore that, along with the return of Lampard and Essien, and a firing Drogba. However, the break has not been kind only to them, it has also allowed Cesc and Van Persie further time to hone their sharpness – both are likely to start tonight.
Elsewhere, the squad is returning to fitness – we still badly miss Vermaelen, but Diaby is back in contention, and Fabianski is likely to reclaim his spot between the sticks. A persistent injury to Almunia is the official reason for his continued absence – I would hazard a guess that may miraculously heal in time for the January transfer window.
But transfers should be the last thing on our mind. It is easy to roll out the old adage that a win tonight would only give us three points. The reality is that it could define our season. It could also define Chelsea’s – remember they will start the game behind us in the table.
A draw would not be a disaster, although United would probably take that if offered. A loss does further mental damage, but a win could kickstart the rest of our league campaign. No-one thinks we can do it. I do.
Enjoy the game.