Chelsea's power play leaves Wenger wary

Click to follow
The Independent Football

There was a time when the two of them threatened to talk only through their lawyers rather than over the roof of a dug-out, but when Jose Mourinho and Arsène Wenger meet tomorrow at Highbury, the handshake ritual, the Arsenal manager said, will be observed. It may prove a chilly exchange but then Wenger has much more to occupy his thoughts these days than the simple matter of keeping his nearest London rival in check.

With Arsenal in sixth place in the Premiership and 17 points behind the leaders, albeit with a game in hand, it is only Mourinho who could be forgiven for allowing his mind to drift forward to February and the contemplation of his team's Champions' League trip to Spain. For Wenger now, the prospect of beating Real Madrid has to take second place to re-asserting himself in a Premiership race that has seen Arsenal beaten in their last two matches and left so far out of touch that a defeat tomorrow could spell the end of their challenge.

Mourinho did not make himself available for comment yesterday which looked like a crafty piece of self-censorship with his views on Uefa's ban for Michael Essien, Barcelona and possibly even Wenger unlikely to endear him to the authorities. Wenger, however, agreed that defeats to Bolton and Newcastle had revealed a troubling "soft-centre" to his Arsenal side which had been seized upon by their more combative Premiership opposition.

"The word has gone around England now that to beat Arsenal you have to get into their face and bully them and try to get away with it," Wenger said. "I feel we have to respond with more authority and calmness than we have until now. It doesn't upset me, it's down to the referees to make the rules more respected. I feel it's down to us as a team - we have to respond to every situation we face and every side we play."

The team with, as Wenger put it, "two forms" - better at home, poor away - will be without the suspended Gilberto Silva tomorrow and the injured Jose Antonio Reyes, Gaël Clichy, Pascal Cygan and Ashley Cole which leaves him relying upon a makeshift defence and central midfield to rescue his title challenge. With Claude Makelele due back from injury to play alongside Frank Lampard and Essien in the centre of midfield, Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini face an unenviable task.

"Chelsea's strength is physical power but I have seen some challenges [from other opponents] that are not acceptable and we have to respond with calm and authority," Wenger said "But we cannot make the rules respected, it's not down to us but you expect a physical game and commitment at the top level. We have to cope with that and I feel we are doing it better and better. Newcastle were a little bit fortunate for us to play 10 against 11."

Wenger made his point about having to rely upon the officials to keep control more than once, and when Mourinho scans his newspapers this morning he will recognise the tactic immediately. After Alan Shearer's man-handling of his team last Saturday, and the obvious physical approach that Didier Drogba has employed to great success against Philippe Senderos in the past, Wenger's message to referee Rob Styles could not have been clearer: he expects his team to be given greater protection this time.

"It's a game of massive importance," Wenger added. "For the whole season, not just for the Premiership it's a massive game. I think we have to focus on how we want to beat Chelsea and what we do in the game and not think too much about the consequences of the result. We have to go at them and only play the game we want to play."

In August it was the goal that trickled in off Drogba's shin that divided them in the Premiership and earlier that month Wenger had dismissed the Community Shield as an irrelevance after his team lost 2-1 to Chelsea in Cardiff. Before then, however, the last two seasons had seen seven meetings between the two sides of which only one - that famous Champions' League quarter-final second leg at Highbury - had gone Chelsea's way, three had been drawn and three won by Arsenal.

There will be a handshake between Wenger and Mourinho but the Chelsea manager can forget his chance of a festive glass of mulled wine and there will not be any Christmas card exchanged - a practice he dismissed as "an English custom". It was so long ago, before a certain Scot in Manchester reclaimed the spotlight, that the world seemed to revolve around these two managers and their exchanges. "What matters is not what is going on between me and Mourinho," he said, "what is important is that we see an exciting game, and Arsenal play well."

While Mourinho kept his counsel, his goalkeeper Petr Cech was less than complimentary about the threat from Arsenal and the young midfield that Wenger will have to rely upon. "Arsenal are young and miss their experienced players," he said "When they are without their key players their team is young so Manchester United and Liverpool, with more experience, will do better this season. With Vieira they lost their experience this is the point."

It sounded a bit more like the exchanges between these two sides earlier in the season, although tomorrow's game will signify a great deal more for Arsenal than it does for Chelsea. Both still have the Champions' League to look forward to, but if Wenger's side lose tomorrow there is a danger that will be all they have.

Wenger v Mourinho: The facts

* 12 Dec 2004, Premiership: Arsenal 2 Chelsea 2 Chelsea twice come from behind.

* 20 April 2005, Premiership: Chelsea 0 Arsenal 0 Arsenal make Chelsea wait another week before clinching the title. But for missed chances by Drogba, Chelsea could have won.

* 7 August, FA Community Shield: Arsenal 1 Chelsea 2 Drogba scores twice; Fabregas hits consolation.

* 21 August, Premiership: Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0 Drogba gives Chelsea first league win over Arsenal since Wenger took charge in 1996.