Sunday 18 March 2018

Today's top-of-table London derby could serve up a little spice

Bragging rights the goal for Gunners

It is not Jose Mourinho or the present Chelsea’s fault that would-be challenges have either fallen away or failed to materialise this season
It is not Jose Mourinho or the present Chelsea’s fault that would-be challenges have either fallen away or failed to materialise this season

Paul Wilson

Watching Luis Suarez score that marvellous pair of goals for Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain 11 days ago, it was easy to see what had moved David Moyes to dismiss this season's Premier League as the poorest he has seen "for a long, long time".

The former Everton manager said English clubs' early dismissal from Europe confirmed a decline in Premier League standards, which it probably did, but also that the very best players no longer plied their trade in England. This time last year Suarez was winning the Footballer of the Year award as the race for the Premier League title went to the wire; now he is sparkling in Spain while the English season limps to a predictable and somewhat pedestrian conclusion.

Moyes did not mention Bayern Munich's brilliance against Porto in midweek, though he could have done. Moyes did not say either that Chelsea would be the poorest English champions for a long, long time. That would be Manchester United of two years ago, or four years ago, or maybe Chelsea the year before that, and in any case it would be unfair. It is not Jose Mourinho or the present Chelsea's fault that would-be challenges have either fallen away or failed to materialise this season, or that Diego Costa's promising start was curtailed by injury.

Playing with barely half a fit strike force, Chelsea have scored more goals than anyone else in the league this season apart from Manchester City. Even if Costa is taken out of consideration, they still have a prime candidate for player of the season in Eden Hazard.

With last week's victory over United, Chelsea opened up a 10-point gap on their nearest challengers and with six games to go are on course for a final points total of around 90, more than good enough most years. Arsenal, meanwhile, are best of the rest. The league table suggests as much. While victory over Chelsea at the Emirates today would not quite revitalise the title race, it would at least confirm the existence of a pulse. By Arsene Wenger's own admission, Arsenal's title hopes slipped away a few weeks ago yet this particular encounter can never be viewed as merely a dead rubber.

Not when Wenger is still waiting for his first victory over Mourinho in what will be his 13th attempt. Not when Cesc Fabregas is making his first return to the Emirates in Chelsea colours. And not when Arsenal are on an eight-match winning streak. Beat Chelsea today and a run of nine wins in a row would not only be the best sequence of results since a similar sequence in their invincible season of 2003-'04, it would leave them one short of equalling a club record for a single season, the 10 games in a row in 1987 and 1998. The Gunners are returning to the levels of consistency that used to bring in titles.

This will be welcomed by all who were concerned that stagnation was taking place under a manager in situ for almost two decades. Be honest, that means just about everybody, Arsenal supporter or not. Rarely has a successful manager been as doubted as Wenger, reviled even at times. Yet rarely, if ever, has one man so transformed a club through footballing rather than financial acumen.

If Arsenal are big players now, Wenger's quiet composure can take as much credit for heaving them upwards as Roman Abramovich's chequebook or Alex Ferguson's belligerence did for their clubs.

For this Wenger gets called a specialist in failure by his Chelsea counterpart, and though the Arsenal manager wisely declined to talk about their relationship in advance of the game, everyone knows when these clubs meet there is an unignorable sub-plot either smirking or seething on the sidelines.

Arsenal have been the form side since the turn of the year. On points won in 2015 they would be above Chelsea in the table, with a remarkable 33 from a possible 39. Unfortunately, league championships do not work like that, as Wenger well knows. Chelsea may not be exciting or adventurous, may not even be as good now as they were at the start of the season, but they have consistency down to a fine art. Chelsea will be worthy champions but if only to stop people fretting about the state of English football. Arsenal and Manchester United need to rejoin the party next time.


Arsenal v Chelsea, Sky Sports 1, 4.0

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