At about 12.40pm this afternoon, Jose Mourinho will position himself around the tunnel at Stamford Bridge and wait for Arsène Wenger to emerge from under the East Stand and into the light, whereupon it will be difficult in the extreme for the Arsenal manager to avoid the proffered hand of his old rival.
Not that you can imagine Wenger ignoring it, even if he does take hold with all the relish of a man grasping a three-weeks-dead mackerel. Either way, there will be plenty of time for recriminations and resentment in the ensuing 90 minutes, with the benches of the two opposing teams so intimately close together and Mourinho, in particular, often unable to ignore Wenger when in such close proximity.
Mourinho v Wenger is always an absorbing prospect, no matter what time of the season. No doubt the day will end with at least one wise old soul comparing the childishness of the Premier League’s two greatest managers with the sporting attitude of the rugby. But, really, you will miss their burning competitive spirit and festering contempt for one another when finally it is gone from the stage of English football.
The XI Chelsea should play against Arsenal
The XI Chelsea should play against Arsenal
1/11 GK: Asmir Begovic
Irony alert. Petr Cech finally quit Chelsea after 10 years because he wanted first-team football - his replacement, Thibaut Courtois, promptly goes and gets injured for around three months. Begovic is as good as a back-up as you'll find in the Premier League and would be a regular starter for at least 10 other teams in the division.
2/11 RB: Cesar Azpilicueta
If Branislav Ivanovic was even playing at a Championship level then he would be in the team, but the Serbian would not get into a League One side at the moment. He's been an absolute liability both defensively and had no impact as an attacker, where he has been so reliable. Cesar Azpilicueta is a stout defender and has the pace and energy to cover the entire right-hand side - that will be key with Chelsea short on wingers for this match.
3/11 CB: Kurt Zouma
Zouma has the pace to deal with Theo Walcott and the strength to deal with Olivier Giroud. As Everton found out last week he is far from the finished article and can be found out with clever movement. But he played better than Gary Cahill in midweek and should retain his place.
4/11 CB: John Terry
Despite his half-time benching against Manchester City, the Chelsea captain has not done much wrong at all this season, but has been badly let down by those playing in front and around him. Father time eventually catches up with everyone, but his organisation and desire mean he should play - besides, Gary Cahill is still not at his level.
5/11 LB: Baba Rahman
Azpilicueta moving over to the right gives Baba Rahman a chance to make the left-back position his own. His added pace and natural left-foot give him an obvious advantage over the Spaniard - who often cuts inside and slows attacks - where he can overlap Eden Hazard to give Chelsea an extra dimension. But, and it's a big but, the young Ghanaian struggled defensively against Maccabi, and was way too often caught high up the pitch and out of position. Chelsea will be ruthlessly punished if he does that against Arsenal. A more disciplined performance is needed.
6/11 CM: Nemanja Matic
His dramatic collapse this season has been just as quick as his meteoric rise to the very top last season, where he overtook Yaya Toure as the best midfielder in the league. Has looked tired, mentally and physically, this season. Got a rest in midweek and knows he must be at his best to combat whatever midfield Arsene Wenger elects to pick. Huge game for Matic, he will be key.
7/11 CM: Cesc Fabregas
It was a surprise to see him play against Maccabi but it was just the tonic the Spaniard needed. His fingerprints were all over the game in a dominant individual performance that brought a goal and an assist and some impressive probing play. Still Chelsea's main creator, Fabregas and Blues fans need to hope his performance translates against a much better class of opponent.
8/11 RW: Pedro
If he's anywhere close to being fit then he has to play - Chelsea just don't have the options in their paper-thin squad. The extremely limited Ramires or the raw Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be the next choices if Pedro misses out, as Willian is out and numerous others out on loan. The Barcelona man started quickly but wasn't at his best against Everton. Still a quality option, however.
9/11 AM: Oscar
Two goals in two starts this season, Oscar's work rate and willingness to defend have made him a Mourinho favourite over the last two years, although that slipped in the second half of last season when the Brazilian badly lost form. The jury is still out on Oscar, who needs to add more flair and creativity to his pretty decent goal record. Has to have a big performance on Saturday.
10/11 LW: Eden Hazard
Not in the team by merit. Last season's Player of the Year looks unfit and (whisper it) a bit uninterested. The Maccabi game should have been a chance for him to find some form, like it was for Fabregas, but Hazard wasn't close to his best, with the early penalty miss knocking his confidence. The weight of burden appears to be hanging heavy on his shoulders, as is the constant double teaming and aggressive treatment he faces from opponents. But it would be far too big a risk to leave him out - plus Chelsea just don't have the options with Willian and maybe Pedro missing. If he doesn't perform then he should expect a spell out of the team.
11/11 ST: Diego Costa
If Mourinho can tell him to stop trying to fight every defender in the land and actually concentrate on his football, he'll have a hell of a striker on his hands. Provided two moments of inspiration against Maccabi, showing quick feet and a turn of pace to win the second penalty, and a telepathic connection - and sublime technique - to volley in a Cesc Fabregas pass. Needs to find his goal scoring form quick for Chelsea to claw their way back into contention. Loic Remy did ok in midweek, but unfortunately was forced to play wide after just 20 minutes because of injury to Willian.
When Mourinho faces Wenger the questions tend to be about the fragility of the Frenchman’s teams and their weakness in the face of Chelsea sides led by the Portuguese coach. Even after the Community Shield victory last month, the first for Wenger against Mourinho in 14 attempts, you still wonder about Arsenal. What has changed in the intervening period is the way we perceive Mourinho’s champions.
With three defeats in their first five league games, and 17th in the table, it was the Chelsea manager who was talking about players too fearful to express themselves, of simply expecting the worst in situations that required them to be courageous. In a lengthy exposition that was intended to poke fun at stories of dressing-room discontent, Mourinho eventually got to the heart of what was wrong.
“You lose matches, you are affected. You lose confidence, you don’t want the ball. You are afraid of the ball. You fear the worst. The ball goes to your box and you think the worst. You are in front of the opponent’s goalkeeper and you are afraid to shoot. You are affected, unless you are so strong that you cope with it and the good thing against Maccabi is that we were speaking about a strong start.”
The 4-0 win on Wednesday over Maccabi Tel Aviv was a beginning but it was accomplished without a number of players in the starting XI – John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa – who would have been shoo-ins to play in a big game like Arsenal last season. While it is hard to see Mourinho leaving out any of them this lunchtime, there is no question that the likes of Ivanovic and Terry are more vulnerable than they once were.
Mourinho was indignant at suggestions of a falling-out with Terry, embarking on a familiar defence that he picks teams as he sees fit. “I play who I want. I don’t care what you say about it, you media, or pundits. I don’t think about the consequences.
“I play the player I think is the best for that game for that moment and John has known that since 2004. During John’s time with me he has had so many examples of big players staying out. I did that all the time in Real Madrid, Inter, Chelsea, Porto. I did that all the time. When I do I don’t look at the passport or the age. I am just looking for a performance level. And John knows that very, very well.”
Against Arsenal, it did not sound like Mourinho would pick the 19-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who started the win over Maccabi. The Chelsea manager said that there was nothing wrong with the teenager’s mentality when it came to first-team games but that he was lacking in other aspects. “With Ruben the process [of improvement] is on the tactical and the physical side – the other night he had cramps. Physically and tactically, he is not ready. Mentally, he is.”
It would be Sir Alex Ferguson’s instinct to throw a youngster like Loftus-Cheek into a game like this. Perhaps Wenger too. Mourinho, for all his protests about the faith he showed in Carlos Alberto at Porto or Raphaël Varane at Real, is a more conservative beast and will not want to take any risks against Arsenal.
Another bad result, however, and it will look more of a risk to stick with the players who have performed so poorly this season. Mourinho badly needs Chelsea to start playing like Chelsea again and there are few teams against whom their modern supremacy has been better expressed than Arsenal. Leaving aside Mourinho’s record over Wenger, Arsenal have beaten their London rivals just five times in 23 games in all competitions between the clubs over the last 10 years. In the same period, Chelsea have 12 wins.
For those 10 years until the Community Shield defeat last month, Chelsea had Petr Cech and, just as pertinently, Arsenal did not. The decision to sell him to Arsenal still annoys Mourinho, however diplomatic he tries to be about it, but not as much as it will annoy him come this evening if Cech has played a big part in an Arsenal victory on his first return to Stamford Bridge since leaving.
“These clubs that stop their players from being happy,” Mourinho said, “they stop their players choosing their destiny [but] Chelsea did this with one of the biggest players in Chelsea’s history. So for me, I repeat, it was not my decision. It’s against my way of thinking about football. But I put myself with the owner and the board because I understand the dimension in that decision. It was a special case.”
As for relaxation, Mourinho said that he would be watching some of the Rugby World Cup. He will be supporting England, even if his two children have been persuaded by a family employee to support Wales. But he does not look like a man who needs some relaxation. He looks like a man who really needs to win another football match, especially today.
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