Alexis Sanchez reporting for duty, sir. Mesut Özil reporting for duty, sir. Words any coach in the world would like to hear with a huge match looming, unless, of course, you are Guus Hiddink leading out Chelsea at the Emirates on Sunday.
Arsène Wenger’s good fortune in having Arsenal’s principal game-changers available together for the first time since late November is, he hopes, bad karma for a Chelsea team he has not beaten in the league in more than four years. Wenger is boosted by not having to face Jose Mourinho, whom he bettered only once, and sees this as a chance to strike a psychological blow at a critical period.
“It is another one where we can show we have moved forward,” Wenger said, dismissing the idea that Chelsea’s lowly station has diminished the importance of the fixture or the scale of the challenge. “It’s another game where people look at us and see how we behave. Even if Chelsea are not in the best position, look at their squad. It’s a big game because of the quality of the players on the pitch.
“They are not in this title race, no, but they are direct rivals because of the quality of their team. I think this season is exceptional circumstances for them. They will be back.
“Nobody could predict that [the decline this season], but it can happen to anybody. The confidence can go quickly. The bad luck for them is that, this season, the league is more difficult for everybody so, once you lack a bit of confidence, it can happen to anybody.”
Arsenal have failed to score in the last five Premier League matches against Chelsea, so the return of Sanchez after a two-month absence with a hamstring injury is all the more welcome. The issue is whether he starts on the pitch or the bench. “The doubt is about him having been out for a long time, and the risk of a set-back. To be clear on all the tests is one thing. To be clear after training is another. But the intensity of a big game you can never replicate in training, but you can make the risk minimal,” Wenger said.
“I’m cautious with him because we cannot afford a set-back, which would mean a very long period out. We don’t want to take this risk. The signs he’s shown in training this week are positive. I think he will make it for selection.”
Wenger predicts “a very intense battle” and it will be led on the blue side by Diego Costa, who seems to have his mojo back under Hiddink. “We have to be prepared for a battle because Costa gives you a fight. We have certainly improved our battling potential through big solidarity, togetherness and because we have more experience.
“One of the advantages of having experienced players is they know sometimes it’s just about battling and not only about playing well.”