Wenger's barbs give derby day extra edge

Arsenal manager criticises the 'soft' penalty given to Chelsea for Kakuta affair while Anelka's form adds extra spice
Click to follow
The Independent Football

There was a time when Arsène Wenger could scarcely mention Chelsea and the conduct of their then manager Jose Mourinho without the kind of contempt and mistrust that he reserves for only his worst enemies. Nowadays, four Chelsea managers on from Mourinho, the fire has cooled a little but Wenger still cannot resist pointing out the errors of English football's arrivistes.

Yesterday, as he prepared his team for tomorrow's game with the Premier League leaders at the Emirates, Wenger was asked to consider the suspension of Chelsea's Fifa transfer embargo that has allowed them to trade again in the January transfer window. The Arsenal manager cannot help but say what he thinks and on this occasion he was outspoken once again. "It is no punishment," he said.

Chelsea have escaped, or at the very least postponed, the sanctions that were heading their way over the Gaël Kakuta saga because their appeal case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the Fifa ruling is taking so long to set up. "It suits them well," Wenger said. "They used a loophole in the rules. You cannot blame them for that. It's more intelligent. But certainly it can be a little bit detrimental to them in the summer. But I think they used that loophole in the rules because of the African Nations Cup."

Wenger conceded that tomorrow's game will tell him a lot about how his young team have progressed, but then he always says that. More pressing will be how his team cope without Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner. There was the slightest hint yesterday that he may elect to change the 4-3-3 formation that has been Arsenal's trademark all season to 4-4-2 because it is better suited to Eduardo da Silva.

There are other problems, too. William Gallas is "50-50" to play and Wenger is down to his third-choice left-back, Armand Traoré. Contrast that with Chelsea who will have Frank Lampard back from his thigh injury and are at full strength having already beaten Liverpool and Manchester United this season. Arsenal's backs are up against the wall once again but this is often the kind of situation in which they come out fighting.

It was interesting to hear Wenger talk so fondly about Nicolas Anelka as he has always done for the 10 years since the Frenchman left Arsenal so prematurely. Bought from Paris St-Germain for £50,000 and sold to Real Madrid for £25m, Anelka was the first young player to be plucked from a European club's academy by a Premier League manager and prove such a success. Anelka was the Kakuta of his day but it has taken him five different clubs to find his stage finally at Chelsea.

"He [Anelka] was the first one to come here and he was very successful straight away," Wenger said. "But he came just after Ian Wright who was a legend here. So straight away he came in and people thought: 'What a player.' You'd imagine that the guy who comes after Ian Wright would have a hard time. But Nicolas was so quick to convince everybody that he had the talent.

"When he left, with less than half the money we bought Thierry Henry in the same year. You can imagine what would have happened had he stayed. I would have bought Thierry Henry anyway. That would have been the right decision because they play together in the France national team."

With six goals and a key role for Chelsea this season, Anelka is unlikely to be given such a forgiving welcome from the Arsenal fans tomorrow. Wenger mischievously suggested that he had turned down the chance to bring Anelka back to the club in the last 10 years and that the French striker still loves Arsenal. However much he may or may not love Wenger's club, Anelka is a major threat to an Arsenal defence that has already shipped 15 goals in the league this season.

Anelka is going to the World Cup finals but the elimination of Russia in the competition's play-offs by Slovenia has hit Andrei Arshavin so hard that Wenger said he left the player out of last weekend's game against Sunderland because he was concerned for the winger's mental state.

"He [Arshavin] is very down," Wenger said. "He came back from Slovenia very down and that's the main reason I did not play him from the start against Sunderland. You want them to be 100 per cent focused, to play a game like it is life or death. So it is impossible not to be down if you don't win.

"If you care, you are down. Arshavin is Russia's captain, he is 29 and at the next World Cup he will be 33. He is a tough boy. He is mentally OK, but he is down and is still disappointed for his country. He is a winner and strong mentally and when his back is to the wall he responds."

In May last season Arsenal lost this fixture 4-1, the second goal scored by Anelka. They have not lost since at the Emirates. This season alone they have won all 11 home games in all competitions and, despite their weakened squad, that gives them a great deal of hope tomorrow.

Defeat will put Arsenal 11 points behind Chelsea, albeit with a game in hand. Even Wenger admitted that Chelsea have a new hungry look about them, right up to the owner Roman Abramovich, about whom Wenger is always prepared to offer a theory. "I believe Abramovich had a little pause [in his interest in Chelsea] in his head," Wenger said. "Is that down to the recession? Is that down to how far he wants to go? This season I am convinced he is ready to go again." The question is: can Arsenal match him?

Beware of the Drog: Didier a danger

*Arsenal's defenders will lament the Ivorian's return to fitness ahead of this match. Chelsea are unbeaten against the Gunners when he plays, and he has scored eight in those 10 games.

*Drogba's goals v Arsenal

Aug 2005: CS Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1 (two)

Aug 2005: PL Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0

Feb 2007: LC Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1 (two)

Mar 2008: PL Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1 (two)

Apr 2009: FA Arsenal 1 Chelsea 2

Chelsea record v Arsenal

With Drogba: P10 W8 D2 L0

Without Drogba: P3 W0 D1 L2