Second-guessing Jose Mourinho is a tough ask for pundits, rival managers and the like - especially on a big match day when he is sure the lenses have zoomed in - for he will go out of his way to throw all of them off, for both the result and his ego.
His preference for consistency and simplicity is well known, but occasionally Mourinho fancies selection shockers and tactical bombshells; random cases in point include the initial axing of Ashley Cole and switching of right back Cesar Azplicueta to the left which has since been made permanent, or the decision to go on the offensive from the onset against Man City at the Etihad, against popular pre-match projections.
Imagine the surprise then on the faces of Arsene Wenger and his centre back pairing if, in contrast to the more logical option of recent first choice Samuel Eto’o or alternative go-to man Fernando Torres, Mourinho chose to go with the previously peripheral Demba Ba as leader of the line tonight.
Thankfully for Arsene Wenger, he is one of those managers who prefer to pay little attention to the opposition and instead concentrate on what his team can and should do. It is a stance severally flawed, but one which might come in handy as the Frenchman looks to end Mourinho’s long-standing unbeaten home record with Chelsea, and finally bag a first win against his nemesis and tormentor.
Had Wenger cared about what Mourinho’s choices might be, it would not be at the extreme front that the major concern would be. Instead, Le Professeur will leave his Portuguese adversary to mull over which midfield picks and permutations he goes with in the absence of the suspended Willian and Ramires.
In this team of typically Mourinhoesque uncompromising grafters, none have run more miles and covered more ground than the duo who got themselves sent off at Villa Park last weekend, and their unavailability opens up a window through which Wenger’s men can squeeze to end not only Arsenal’s but the entire Premier League’s Stamford Bridge hoodoo.
For that industry alone the two Brazilians would have been shoe-ins for Mourinho’s choice eleven tonight, but they do bring a lot more to the plate with their tactical awareness, the quick thought, movement and agility on the counter-attack (which will be a big blue weapon), and the ability to score on days like this.
How Mourinho decides to plug the holes they leave will reveal his confidence levels, approach and intentions.
Having lost one of the line-of-three he uses behind his lone frontman, he could throw a spanner in the work by instead introducing a second striker in Torres. But that would mean Eto’o operating more withdrawn, and yet recent form suggests he is a better bet to prod the ball home from close range.
He could draft Frank Lampard into one of the holding roles or even in his old attacking role, but he used the veteran Englishman for 90 minutes against Galatasaray on Tuesday night and has not deployed him two times a week in a while.
With Nemanja Matic a certainty for one of those holding roles, turning to Obi Mikel as the second one is a plausible option, but despite having a decent all round game and a good history against Arsenal the Nigerian does not have the ball-winning tenacity, passing range and knack for scoring big ones (freekicks, 30-yard screamers and all) of David Luiz.
The big haired Brazilian should be fancied to replace Ramires and get in the faces of Arsenal’s mobile passers, while the versatile German Andre Schurrle should assume Willian’s chores.
Whichever way Mourinho goes, he will find an impressive Arsenal that has added resilience and resoluteness to their attacking game, and who have for once not prematurely abandoned their designs on the title.
And without the overbearing, manipulative, irritating and intimidating presence of the suspended Mourinho on the touchline, Wenger can commandeer that territory and implore his players to dominate the playing field this once. He must, for he will never have a better opportunity to conquer.