There are many ways Arsene Wenger could celebrate his 1,000th match as Arsenal manager.
Few, if any, could surpass beating counterpart Jose Mourinho for the first time as the Gunners face front-running Chelsea on Saturday in a crunch match at Stamford Bridge.
Wenger has been the club’s most prolific manager since arriving in London in 1996, winning 579 of his 999 matches. He has 11 trophies to his credit, including four FA Cup and three Premier League titles, but none since lifting the 2005 FA Cup.
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The Gunners (19-5-5) are on pace for another top-four finish to secure another Champions League appearance next season and lurk only four points behind Chelsea (20-6-4) with one match in hand, but there is a sense Arsenal do not have the horses for the stretch run, more so without injured midfielder Mesut Ozil, who joins fellow playmakers Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshire on the sidelines.
In addition to finding the 11 best and healthiest bodies to face the Premier League leaders, Wenger’s milestone match will again feature his prickly relationship with Mourinho, who again has taken delight in publicly tweaking the Frenchman in his second go-round with Chelsea (20-6-4). The war of words reached a crescendo last month when the Portuguese manager ripped Wenger as a "specialist in failure" and called him out on his title drought of now eight-plus years after the Frenchmen intimated Mourinho had a "fear of failure" by downplaying Chelsea’s title hopes during their surge to the top of the table.
With those words, the differing philosophies of the two adversarial managers are essentially laid bare – Wenger, "Le Professeur," steadfast in his belief about success coming via a flowing, aesthetically pleasing style of play versus the pragmatic Mourinho, the "Special One" who appears to seamlessly shift his team’s style on almost a match-by-match basis to best neutralise an opponent.
Wenger has only five draws in 10 head-to-head lifetime matches versus Mourinho after the London rivals played to a 0-0 draw at the Emirates on Dec. 23. Arsenal had more possession of the ball, but it was Chelsea who had more chances on goal, highlighted by Frank Lampard hitting the underside of the bar in the 32nd minute.
Chelsea swept aside the disappointment of their 1-0 league loss at Aston Villa, in which Mourinho was banished from the touchline, by advancing to the Champions League quarterfinals following their 2-0 second-leg victory over Galatasaray on Wednesday that resulted in a 3-1 aggregate win. Samuel Eto’o and Gary Cahill scored first-half goals as Mourinho moved a step closer to his third Champions League title with as many different teams.
”It was everything we wanted it to be. We knew it was going to be a tough game but they hardly threatened,” Lampard said. ”It was a very controlled, very professional performance from all of us."
Once more, Mourinho – who was charged by the FA on Wednesday for his actions at Villa Park – will put his undefeated home record in league play on the line, entering this match with 59 wins and 15 draws at Stamford Bridge while in charge of Chelsea.
"The game against Arsenal comes at an important moment because it follows a league defeat," midfielder Eden Hazard said. "We are going to do our best in front of our own supporters in what is a big derby game. There is no game better to win."
Arsenal put aside the disappointment of their Champions League exit with a key 1-0 victory at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. Tomas Rosicky scored in the second minute, and the Gunners made it stand despite failing with two gilt-edged chances to put away the game in the first half.
"It will be a vital game against Chelsea but still there are so many games to go so we don’t know what will happen after that," Rosicky told the team’s official website. "There are four teams there and it is absolutely exciting."
Chelsea, who knocked Arsenal out of the League Cup with a 2-0 fourth-round victory at the Emirates in October, are unbeaten in their last five (3-2-0) in all competitions since a 5-3 loss at Stamford Bridge on Oct. 29, 2011.