Chelsea play host to a staggering Arsenal (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 8 a.m. ET) in what has become a massive London derby game for the visitors. It is a must-win match for the Gunners – and it may prove to be a referendum on their long-serving manager, Arsene Wenger.
Reeling from a 2-0 mauling by Manchester City – the club’s first league win in 38 years at Arsenal – the Gunners must take three points against third-placed Blues. Failure to do so would leave Arsenal in a precarious position: they go into this match a full two games out of a top-four slot and any further slips would make it difficult for them to secure play in Europe next fall.
Arsenal are in a slump, again. They have failed to win any of their last three games, and last Sunday’s game against City was particularly grim. They lost defender Laurent Koscielny in the 9th minute to a straight red for a rugby tackle on Edin Dzeko and were never able to adjust tactically or mentally thereafter.
More troubling was the fact that only Jack Wilshere seemed to grasp the possibilities at hand while players such as Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey simply disappeared. Those Arsenal vanishing acts are becoming increasingly frequent, and it raises a troubling question: does this team care any more?
It is true that Arsenal’s defense has been woeful, but some are starting to wonder if the real problem this team faces is a lack of heart caused by a lack of governance. This is an outfit that has been slowly bled of their top names by better-heeled rivals and has been unwilling to raise their pay scales to compete with the best in Europe. Selling Robin van Persie to Manchester United might have been good business – but it is also looking like the final straw. After all, if the club cares more about the bottom line than it does wins, what message does that send to the players?
Of course, some of the messages other teams send their players are downright opaque. Take Chelsea, who sacked Roberto Di Matteo for what most judged to be spurious reasons and installed the fan-loathed Rafael Benitez in his stead.
Have Chelsea really been any better for the change? No. They were beaten by Queens Park Rangers in the cellar dwellers’ second league win so far; lost the Club World Cup, and lost in the first leg of the League Cup to Swansea. On Wednesday, the Blues threw away a two-goal lead against Southampton at Stamford Bridge. It is fair to say they are talented and erratic.
Chelsea did sweep through Stoke on Saturday however, and while the 4-0 scoreline owed much to Jon Walters’ follies, it is hard to say that it wasn’t deserved. Demba Ba is a legitimate reason to keep the sulky Fernando Torres where he belongs on the bench and Frank Lampard seems bent on showing Roman Abramovich what he will miss by letting him go at the end of the season. The Britannia is a notoriously difficult place to score at and Chelsea managed to rack up four – helped of course by poor Walters, who headed two of them past his own keeper.
Chelsea do have other issues. Branislav Ivanovic endured a miserable day of his own last Wednesday when he gifted Swansea two goals in their first leg League Cup tie; and David Luiz has shown both magic and idiocy in equal measure. But worst of all may be the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, where the crowd has been uniformly hostile to Benitez. Chelsea have struggled at home and some think that the hatred towards their boss may be the cause.
Eden Hazard is showing some growing pains, but he still looks to be one of the buys of the season in the Premier League. Juan Mata has remained one of the league’s most exciting and insightful attackers, and with the returns of John Terry and Gary Cahill to the squad, they should be locked up tight at the back once more.
Should this game go to form, a Premier League big spender will down another Premier League also-ran. Arsenal may not like what this league has become, but if they want to continue to play in it, they had better prepare to pony up.