There was not much that Jose Mourinho failed to achieve in his time at Chelsea, although for some reason he found beating Arsenal as tough as anything. Oddly, his variety of successors as manager have succeeded in that aim on a regular basis, so much so that the north London club would have to regard Chelsea these days as something of a bogey team: four defeats in a row and seven in the last eight meetings is the discouraging statistic for Arsène Wenger's squad to take into tomorrow night's important encounter at the Emirates.
The story of those games has mostly been as familiar as the outcome: Arsenal play their pretty passing football, only to be brushed aside sooner or later by their opponents' physical power, summed up in the awesome figure of Didier Drogba.
When the Ivorian set his team on the way to their habitual win over Wenger's side at Stamford Bridge in October, it was his 13th goal in 11 starts against them. Arsenal, who remain particularly fallible in defence without the injured Thomas Vermaelen, can only hope that Drogba's recent bout of malaria has cost him a little sharpness although, according to Carlo Ancelotti, a fortnight without a match has enabled several Chelsea players, Drogba included, to return to something much closer to full match fitness.
"I have a feeling during training that the team is ready to come back to its best form again to win games," he said. "Drogba was one of the players who have used this time to improve his condition. He needed to work continuously day by day and he did this. He worked hard, in focus, with concentration, and I think that malaria is now a memory for him."
Ancelotti acknowledges that physical strength has been an advantage in the recent meetings, although he detects changes in Arsenal that are making them more competitive: "This year they have a different opportunity to score – [Marouane] Chamakh is a different player to what they had last season. Chamakh is able to play with the head, they can use more crosses. And because they improved their experience. One year more is good. It could be a different game."
Wenger would like to think so, even if his team's poor performance away to Manchester United in the previous match against championship rivals offered little encouragement. The manager was even forced to try making a positive out of his captain Cesc Fabregas's suggestion that they were "scared" of losing the game and consequently sat back too much instead of playing their football. "They had a bit more belief than us," Wenger conceded. "It's good that the players are conscious of that because when you are conscious about something, you can do something about it. That's why I believe it's a fair assessment. I'm not unhappy he has said that. The most important thing for the top-level teams and the top-level players is to have an honest and fair assessment of what happened with your performance. With that, you can correct it."
It is a reasonable assumption that emphasis on taking the game to the opposition will have featured in training sessions and team talks at London Colney this past week. Playing at home should make it easier to put into practice; and it is worth noting that Arsenal have already had to play away this season to Chelsea, United, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Not that Wenger accepts his team are mentally or physically frail: "The Arsenal mentality is fantastic and very strong. This team is hungry and the players want success. It is more about belief, and belief comes by focusing on playing together and the way we want to play rather than thinking: 'can we beat Chelsea or not?' We can beat Chelsea but the best way is to focus on what we want to achieve."
Like Chelsea, Arsenal must play their next game 48 hours after this one, in their case at Wigan, followed by Birmingham away, Manchester City at home and then two cup ties. Of that run, a Carling Cup match would normally be insignificant, but a semi-final against Ipswich has taken on new importance for a club who are regularly reminded that they have not won anything for five years.
Ancelotti said of Wenger: "He is doing a very good job. I like to watch Arsenal play." When asked, however, if he would still be in a job if Chelsea went through as barren a period, he could not resist a smile and one of the understatements of the club's highly successful 2010: "I think it would be more difficult to stay here."Reuse content