With Chelsea, transforming Arsenal have chance to offer glimpse of title challenge intent ahead

Arsene Wenger's Arsenal side have looked like a new team in recent weeks, with health and improved defensive play leading many to view them as Chelsea's top title threat for next season.

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez shown celebrating during his side's win over Reading in the FA Cup semi-final on April 18. Alastair Grant / AP
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Chelsea's trip to Arsenal on Sunday has been billed as a Premier League title decider, but in reality it is likely to have more of a bearing on next season.

With 11 wins and two defeats since the turn of the year, Arsenal have amassed more points per game in 2015 than any other team in Europe’s five major leagues, but still they trail Chelsea by 10 points.

Chelsea will be champions if they beat Arsenal and win at Leicester City on Wednesday, but even though defeat on Sunday would probably only delay their coronation, it could herald the start of a North London revolt.

Fixtures between Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have traditionally represented a collision of competing ideologies, with Wenger the style-obsessed romantic and Mourinho the cold, hard pragmatist.

While clubs around the world fell over themselves to ape the possession-based approach of Barcelona and Spain during the high point of “tiki-taka” – emboldening Wenger to cram even more small, technical midfielders into his starting XIs – Mourinho remained true to his counter-attacking convictions.

Those principles were in evidence last weekend when Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 at Stamford Bridge despite seeing only 30 per cent of the ball.

The contrasting philosophies underpin the ill-feeling between Wenger and Mourinho, who clashed on the touchline during October’s reverse fixture (a 2-0 Chelsea win) and who have traded ideological barbs this week.

Responding to Wenger’s claim that “it is easy to defend”, Mourinho made a characteristically caustic reference to Arsenal’s Champions League exit, saying: “If it was easy, you wouldn’t lose 3-1 at home to Monaco.”

Both men have played down the significance of their personal rivalry, but with Wenger having never beaten Mourinho in 12 attempts and having claimed only two major trophies to the Chelsea manager’s six during the time they have both spent working in England, it is clear where the balance of power lies.

The hope, for Arsenal’s fans, is that the savvy shown by their team during a run of nine straight wins in all competitions will yield a transformative victory.

After years of parsimony, Arsenal can now compete with Chelsea for the game’s star names – as demonstrated by the acquisitions of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez – and the gap may be closing on the pitch, too.

Arsenal have experienced an uncommon number of heavy losses to rivals in recent years – including a 6-0 annihilation by Chelsea last season – but belatedly, the penny appears to have dropped for Wenger.

With former fringe player Francis Coquelin anchoring the midfield, Arsenal have begun to beat their rivals in a fashion that even Mourinho might be moved to admire.

They had only 35 per cent of possession in a 2-0 win at Manchester City in January and saw only 42 per cent of the ball in a 2-1 victory at Manchester United in the FA Cup last month.

And with Ozil, Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla supplying the bullets for Olivier Giroud, they can still put teams to the sword, as shown by the 4-1 victory over Liverpool three weeks ago.

“We are a bit more efficient defensively, but not necessarily more cautious,” said Wenger, who is due to come up against his former captain Cesc Fabregas.

“Maybe we attack even more. There is less reluctance to go forward when we have the ball when the belief is stronger. When we go, we go.”

Wenger’s side slid to third place after Manchester City’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa on Saturday and will slip to fourth if Manchester United beat Everton on Sunday, but they retain games in hand on both their rivals.

Both teams have concerns over key players, with Arsenal centre-back Per Mertesacker a doubt with an ankle problem and Chelsea top scorer Diego Costa facing a late fitness test on his troublesome hamstring.

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