Arsenal have won their last eight league matches, but Arsene Wenger has not beaten Jose Mourinho in 12 attempts. Michael Regan / Getty
Arsenal have won their last eight league matches, but Arsene Wenger has not beaten Jose Mourinho in 12 attempts. Michael Regan / Getty

How Arsenal can beat Chelsea and offer hope of a genuine title challenge for next season



When the case for the prosecution against Manuel Pellegrini is made on whether he should keep his job at Manchester City, perhaps the most damning evidence is that Jose Mourinho has offered his support.

When the Chelsea manager calls off the attack dogs it is because he no longer perceives a threat, so in that regard it’s probably good news for Arsenal that Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have engaged in their usual pre-match to-and-fro over the past week.

With Chelsea 10 points clear at the top of the table, Sunday’s meeting may be all but irrelevant in terms of determining who wins the league but it may give some indication of how realistic a title challenge Arsenal can offer next season.

As Arsenal have won eight in a row in the league, while progressing to the FA Cup final, there has been reason to believe this is more than just the usual pattern playing out.

In recent years they have become specialists in approaching the brink then drawing back, doing just enough to secure Uefa Champions League qualification without giving any indication that they actually could win the league or impose themselves against the best in the league.

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This season, though, they have produced highly impressive displays to beat Manchester City away and Liverpool at home — and have done so while playing in two very different ways.

At City, Arsenal sat back, absorbed pressure and always looked in control. Against Liverpool they pressed hard and high — and did so with the blend of aggression and organisation that their pressing has so often lacked, at least in comparison to the very best sides.

It is one thing to rattle a Liverpool back three undermined by injury and given little help by a central midfield that offered few passing options, though, quite another to unsettle Chelsea.

Irrespective of points and titles, Wenger could do with a win against Mourinho: 12 previous meetings have produced seven wins for Mourinho and five draws, which seems rather to confirm the general impression that Mourinho is by far the better tactician, far more adept at manipulating games to his narrative.

If Arsenal can win the ball back high and early, they may be able to isolate the centre of Chelsea’s defence, which has proved itself vulnerable to pace this season. With Nemanja Matic likely to be accompanied in central midfield by either Ramires or Kurt Zouma, though, Chelsea’s central block is strong. Last season, a goalless draw at the Emirates marked the first match of Chelsea’s revamped defence and they sat deep and killed the game, a tactic that was dull but highly effective.

Wenger presumably had that game in mind when he noted this week that, “It’s easy to defend. If we have to defend, then we will defend.”

Mourinho, of course, had plenty of ammunition with which to respond. “It’s not easy, not easy,” he said. “If it was easy you wouldn’t lose 3-1 at home to Monaco [in the Champions League]. If he defends well he draws 0-0 against Monaco and wins in Monte Carlo. It’s not easy to defend.”

Since their 5-3 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day, Chelsea, despite being far from their best, have dropped only six points and conceded only seven goals in 12 games.

Mourinho acknowledged that his side have become more cagey, but insisted it was a result of “injuries and suspensions” rather than a conscious change of approach.

Chelsea need only a draw. Take a point and they are still 10 points clear, but with only five games rather than six remaining: it might delay the winning of the title, but it is not going to prevent it.

The probability is that Chelsea will sit deep and, as they did against Manchester United last week, look to hold Arsenal at arm’s length, waiting for a mistake.

If Arsenal can break them down, if they can avoid being caught on the counter, then perhaps they really could be contenders next season.

But while they are dealing in potential, Chelsea are two wins from the title.

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