ARSENAL will look to shrug off recurring doubts about their mental strength and the weight of recent history when they visit runaway Premier League leaders Chelsea on Saturday.
Chelsea dropped points for only the second time in 17 matches in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool, but Arsenal could not take advantage as they crashed to a 2-1 home defeat by Watford.
It means the gap between the teams remains nine points and should Arsenal fall to defeat again at Stamford Bridge, it is likely to spell yet another premature end to a title challenge.
“When you accept competition and you want to be at the highest levels, you have to accept you will have defining moments and defining games,” said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
“If you don’t want that pressure, it is better that you don’t compete.
“Every day there are careless ups and downs, but we have accepted this job and the beauty of this job is that you can have highs, and that is what you want to focus on.”
The defeat by Watford, who scored twice in the opening 13 minutes, was Arsenal’s fourth of the campaign and curbed a resurgence that had seen them take 13 points from a possible 15.
Arsenal’s season is slipping into familiar territory and if they are to avoid yet another campaign boiling down to the contest for Champions League qualification, beating Chelsea would be a good place to start.
They have already defeated Antonio Conte’s men once this season, but it was to prove the catalyst for a surge to the top of the table for the vanquished, rather than the victorious.
It was in the 55th minute of Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium on September 24 that Conte switched to the 3-4-3 system that revitalised his side’s season.
The win left Arsenal third, five places above their London rivals, and came amid a run of six straight wins that would culminate in Wenger’s men drawing level on points with leaders Manchester City.
Four months on, Arsenal find themselves back in third, with Chelsea threatening to disappear over the horizon as they go in search of an 11th consecutive win in front of their own fans.
ARSENAL’S MIDFIELD HOLE
But despite the dramatic reversal of fortunes, Conte says he has kept the September defeat in mind.
“This defeat seems far (away), but it’s important to remember the defeat against Arsenal,” said the Chelsea manager.Advertisement
“It was a bad defeat, 3-0 after the first half. And in my mind it’s always present, this defeat.
“I hope also in the mind of my players. I think it’s important to remember the first game against Arsenal.”
Arsenal’s supporters, many of whom took to social media to vent their frustrations after the loss to Watford, have learnt to approach trips to the Bridge with trepidation.
They have not seen their team win there since 2011, Arsenal having lost on each of their last four visits, including a humiliating 6-0 loss on the occasion of Wenger’s 1 000th game in March 2014.
Wenger will be absent from the dug-out on Saturday as he serves the third match of a four-game touchline ban for manhandling fourth official Anthony Taylor during Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Burnley.
Further complicating matters for the Frenchman is a raft of missing midfielders, Aaron Ramsey having joined the list of absentees after sustaining a calf strain against Watford.
Granit Xhaka is banned, Santi Cazorla remains injured, Mohamed Elneny is preparing for the Africa Cup of Nations final with Egypt in Gabon and Jack Wilshere is still on loan at Bournemouth.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is likely to partner Francis Coquelin in the holding roles if he passes a fitness test on a minor knee problem.
Chelsea are a man lighter after Branislav Ivanovic departed for Zenit Saint Petersburg on Wednesday, but Conte again has a fully fit squad to choose from.