Saturday February 8 2014

Advantage City: Arsenal, Chelsea both have plenty to do to keep up

Man City captain Vincent Kompany and his charges may

Man City captain Vincent Kompany and his charges may have slipped up against Chelsea on Monday but they remain the Premiership title favourites.  


Going into the habitually dreaded November, Arsenal were looking at a two-month run of fixtures destined to make or break their season, and feelings of de ja vu were widespread at the time.

Right here, I recall asserting that the best way to take control of that period was to win the very first one of those fixtures, which was to be against Liverpool at the Emirates.

History seems to repeat itself in double quick time in the Premiership, and no more than a couple of months down the road the same scenario is eerily playing itself out yet again.

With a match-programme even more daunting than that one around the festive period from which they emerged virtually unscathed, the Gunners need not concern themselves with anymore than winning the first one – against Liverpool – and riding through the storm on the back of the momentum such a victory would inevitably bring. Having watched their title rivals conspire to keep them atop the log, as Chelsea bettered Man City Monday night, it is Arsenal’s turn to have the more difficult hurdle in this three-way merry-go-round.

City might be playing away from home, but while this would have been an issue, pre-Christmas, things have since changed enough to make a trip to Norwich sound routine. Should they win, not even a draw for Arsenal in the earlier game would be enough to keep them at the summit, and a win for Chelsea under those circumstances would only serve up an interesting three-way tie for points that would leave City in charge thanks to their insurmountable goal difference.

Liverpool vs Arsenal
Injury to Lucas Leiva has caused all sorts of problems, and it is going to be interesting to see how Brendan Rodgers sets his stall for this high profile visit.

It was with anger that Reds fans reacted to that lineup without any balance that Rodgers put out against Aston Villa recently at Anfield; it was to my surprise that the Liverpool manager should be that disrespectful, but it would be numbingly shocking if he literally put his neck in the noose that way against Arsenal today.

With Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling on either side of Luis Suarez in a three-man attack, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Coutinho to slot into a central role, at the apex of a midfield triangle ahead of Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard.

That, however, would be quite adventurous against the might of Arsenal, the more understandably pragmatic choice being bringing in Joe Allen, especially since a defence deprived by injury and prone to error will need more protection than Gerrard and Henderson can muster.

The catch is that dropping Coutinho could recreate the scenario at the Emirates in November where Suarez and Sturridge were starved of service until the little Brazilian playmaker was belatedly thrown into the fray. But Rodgers cannot have his cake and eat it too … Arsenal’s strength is in the predictability of their shape from which Arsene Wenger will not waver, a three-man central midfield shoring up a three-man attack, but in essence, a formation which accommodates all of six midfielders! The vulnerability lies in having Arteta as the only central man with any defensive inkling, and so the Gunners atone by keeping the ball away from the opposition.

And yet there is no advantage for either side in the pressure stakes, with Liverpool as desperate to hang onto fourth as Arsenal are to cling onto their slim lead.

Chelsea vs Newcastle
Jose Mourinho can very rarely, if ever, be accused of taking his eye off the ball, but he is going to have to be very careful about his choices here. They have lost creator-in-chief Johan Cabaye, are without their top scorer Loic Remy and got an absolute hiding in the Tyne-Wear derby against Sunderland last time out, at home. Yet Newcastle are a banana skin on which Chelsea can slip up badly.

The temptation might be to bring Oscar back, send Ramires back into one of the holding midfield positions and drop either one of David Luiz or Nemanja Matic, but Mourinho would be best served by starting out with the line-up that so admirably out-competed Man City.

Circumstances have forced Newcastle to go with one striker and deploy five across the middle, and the power, pace and skill of Moussa Ssissoko, Cheik Tiote, Vurnon Anita, Ben Arfa and Sammy Ameobi needs special attention (I would play little Sylvain Marveaux ahead of young Sammy though).

Newcastle’s good tidings against Chelsea are usually reserved for St James’ Park, but Mourinho can’t rule out muscle memory carrying the same group across the Bridge this once.