London's leading men take centre stage
It is all about a leader of men. Widely admired for his achievements, his actions have come under increasing scrutiny in the last couple of weeks. But while the cameras will be trained on John Terry again today, the footballing focus on Arsene Wenger is more significant. The Chelsea captain may has lost the England armband, the product of several years' hard work, with his misjudged actions.
The Arsenal manager has to prove his season's endeavours were not in vain. Lose at Stamford Bridge today and a fifth consecutive campaign without domestic silverware and a sixth without a title is all but assured. If Wenger loses, Chelsea retain their billing as favourites. It is a state of affairs that creates unlik-ely Gunners. "I hope Arsenal batter them," boomed Sir Alex Ferguson. Chelsea have become the common enemy for the Manchester United and Arsenal managers over the past six years. But the Scot has deprived Chelsea of Premier and Champions League trophies in that period. Wenger has no such consolation.
Vocal in his opposition to what he has termed "financial doping" in football, he has made indirect references to Chelsea. A cash-rich club has a very different style, on and off the pitch, from Wenger's brand of husban-dry. While few things are beyond credibility in football, it is hard to imagine an Arsenal player becoming involved in a situation like Terry's. Wenger is a roundhead off the pitch, a cavalier on it. The opposite may be said of the former England captain.
On the field, it can be painted as pragmatism against purism. As Carlo Ancelotti's men have scored 20 goals in their last six games, it is not as simple as that. Nous against naivety is an alternative interpretation, one with which Wenger may take issue. There is a battle-hardened quality to Chelsea. They ally physical force with experience. It was too toxic a combination for Arsenal in November, when Chelsea won 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium.
"We are working to repeat the same result," said Ancelotti. "Tactically we did very well because Arsenal have fantastic players in the midfield - [Cesc] Fabregas, [Andrey] Arshavin, [Samir] Nasri, so we didn't give them the possibility to play." Besides a resilience, Chelsea have a turn of pace, aided by Arsenal. As Wenger developed Ashley Cole, introduced Nicolas Anelka to English football and once contemplated signing Didier Drogba, it is a sign that the two clubs are not quite the polar opposites they can appear.
It can also account for the shift in the balance of power from north to west London. The trio are Chelsea's outstanding performers this season. Drogba is a perpetual problem for Arsenal; with 10 goals in 11 games against them, he regularly inflicts his version of capital punishment on them. Halting Drogba ranks highly on Arsenal's checklist of things to do to re-establish themselves as challengers.
For Manuel Almunia, embarrassed by Nani's goal for United a week ago, proving he is a worthy goalkeeper for a top-four side is the objective. For forwards and midfielders who have been prolific against the rest but not the best, proving they can be clinical against the most frugal defences is the aim. For the entire side, overwhelmed by United and overcome in each of their three games against title rivals, producing both the performance and the result when the pressure is on is the task.
"Because they haven't won [against Chelsea or United] yet they have made it harder than it really is," Wenger said. "When we get close to winning, we play with the handbrake on. But I know this team is mentally strong and dedicated." For Terry, proving he can thrive under the spotlight is the goal. Leadership comes in many guises. His captaincy of Chelsea goes as unquestioned as Wenger's management of Arsenal but, for very different reasons, they are men in need of affirmation today.
firstname.lastname@example.org Chelsea v Arsenal, 8pm, Showsports 1 & 2
Published: February 7, 2010 04:00 AM