LONDON – Victory for the Premier League leader over a side whose manager admits it is in a relegation battle is not usually so significant, but if Arsenal beats Chelsea on Sunday it would be a powerful statement of its title credentials.
Jose Mourinho has gone though this is still the Portuguese’s team and Arsene Wenger never overcame his bitter rival in a competitive match.
Guus Hiddink has acknowledged Chelsea is fighting against the drop, yet the Blues are still the reigning champion and Wenger only beat Mourinho once, in last August’s Community Shield, never when three points were at stake.
It is 22 years since the table-topping Gunners were so far ahead of Chelsea, which is 14th and four points off the drop zone. Arsenal leads the Blues by 19 points and you must go back to January 1994 for the last time Arsenal had a bigger advantage.
With Leicester showing signs of wear and tear, the race for the title is likely to be between Arsenal and Manchester City. The Gunners are boosted by the return of Mesut Ozil, who missed the draw at Stoke, and Alexis Sanchez, available again after a hamstring injury which has sidelined the Chile international for six weeks.
Wenger will take no chances with Sanchez, who will be on the bench at Emirates Stadium. He said: “The doubt is about him having been out for a long time and the risk of a setback. To be clear on all the tests is one thing. To be clear after training is another.
“The intensity of a big game you can never replicate in training, but you can make the risk minimal. I’m cautious with him because we cannot afford a setback, which would mean a very long period out.”
Chelsea is unbeaten in the seven games since Hiddink took charge — three wins and four draws — with seven points from a possible 15 in the league underlining the Blues’ continuing mediocrity.
Wenger was asked if Sunday’s opponents would be specialists in failure (which Mourinho called Wenger two years ago) if they were in a real relegation fight. “I see where you want to take me,” replied Wenger with a smile. “But honestly I’m not ready to travel.
“Because of the quality of the players on the pitch it will be a very intense battle no matter the manager on the bench. It’s a big game. We know how important it will be to win these games. They are not in this title race but they are direct rivals because of the quality of their team.”
When Chelsea beat nine-man Arsenal 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in September, nobody would have predicted that when the teams met again in January one would be challenging for the title and the other looking over its shoulder at relegation.
Then, Diego Costa was at his snarling worst, at the heart of both red cards and just about every controversy. He has regained his goal-touch under Hiddink, but the vulnerable, aging Chelsea defense is likely to find Arsenal’s speed merchants too hot to handle.
The addition of former Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech has given Arsenal more solidarity at the back, and if the Gunners are to become champions, this is the sort of game they must win to dispel doubts that they lack the mental and physical strength of the Blues.
Anything less than a victory and it will be deemed as the same old Arsenal.
Question time: What is it about English football that makes management such an attractive proposition?
Few other professions offer such a short-term likelihood of employment. If a manager makes it to a third year, he almost qualifies for a gold watch.
A record 32 managers have been sacked in the Premier League and Football League this season — and we are only just over the halfway mark. More than a third of the 92 clubs have dispensed with their manager, a record for this stage of the campaign.
The average tenure of a manager is 2.13 years in the Premier League; 1.37 in the Championship; 1.17 in League One and 1.63 in League Two. Half a dozen bad results and the chairman can pull the trigger. Players win matches, managers lose them. Club owners do not so much expect success these days, they demand it whatever the budget.
The advent of social media means fans’ criticisms are more high profile and accessible than ever. However, it is difficult to imagine the present day keyboard warriors putting pen to paper as Manchester United fans did to force the sacking of Dave Sexton in 1981.
“Unfortunately Dave Sexton has failed commercially,” said Martin Edwards, the chairman at the time. “We took the decision because of the hundreds of letters from United fans expressing dissatisfaction with the type of football the team have been playing.”
Wenger, who has been in charge of Arsenal for almost two decades, is the last remaining old school manager, whereby he is in charge of just about all team matters. This is the era of the director of football or transfer committee who take charge of bringing in new players whether the manager wants them or not.
When Andre Villas-Boas was manager of Tottenham, the club signed Nacer Chadli, Eric Lamela, Christian Eriksen and Vlad Chiriches — the Portuguese did not want these players but they were put forward by Spurs’ director of football Franco Baldini. Villas-Boas is not the first or last manager to have to get the best out of players who were not his recommendations.
Richard Bevan, chief executive of the League Managers’ Association, said: “Professional football is the ultimate results-driven business, with owners, boards and supporters’ expectation levels going up and up year on year. Boards need to take a step back and look at their league position compared to resources, squad, stadium capacity, attendances, and compare themselves with other similar clubs.”
How true, but they don’t and won’t. It was not too long ago some Charlton fans were calling for Alan Curbishley to be sacked because the club “was only” eighth in the Premier League. That’s the Charlton now staring relegation to League One in the face having had five managerial changes in the last 18 months.
Manager No. 33 will be sacked soon, probably after a year in his present job.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.