Chelsea-Arsenal Preview - Sports Illustrated

Chelsea-Arsenal Preview

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The man who famously labeled Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger "a specialist in failure" won't be in the opposing coaches' box Sunday at the Emirates Stadium, but the stumbling block that is beating Chelsea continues to weigh on the French manager's mind ahead of this London derby.

Going more than three years without a top-flight goal against such a rival will do that.

The departure of Jose Mourinho also meant the departure of some of the most entertaining back-and-forths in all of football, with the "Special One" and "Le Professeur" sniping over anything ranging from their differing philosophies to success to personalities. Their war of words reached a peak in February 2014 when Mourinho lobbed that aforementioned charge after Wenger felt his counterpart was downplaying Chelsea's title chances that season due to "a fear to fail."

The theatrics appeared all the more effective given Wenger never defeated Mourinho in any competition until last summer's Community Shield. That 2-1 triumph stands as Wenger's lone win in 15 lifetime matches (1-6-8) against his not-so-cherished rival.

This weekend, however, finds Wenger firmly holding the upper hand in the Premier League chase. Arsenal (13-5-4) top the table over Leicester City on goal difference, and reigning champions Chelsea (6-7-9) are a staggering 19 points adrift and only four above the drop in 14th place.

While Wenger dismissed reporters' questions of the Blues being "specialists in failure" should they be relegated at season's end with a wry admonishment and sardonic smile, his admission that Chelsea are still a psychological hurdle to overcome at Thursday's pre-match news conference was surprising.

"Yes," he admitted when asked point-blank. "It is another one where we can show we have moved forward. It is another game where people look at us and see how we behave because, even if Chelsea are not in the best position, you look at their squad.

"We have certainly proved our battling potential through big solidarity, through great togetherness. ... One of the advantages of having experienced players is that they know sometimes it's just about battling and not always only about playing well."

It also showed Wenger is well aware Arsenal have been outscored 14-2 on a 0-3-5 league span versus Chelsea, including a 482-minute scoreless stretch since Theo Walcott's tally in a 2-1 loss Jan. 20, 2013.

The other area Wenger addressed for this match was the need to stay level-headed, unlike the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge. Gabriel succumbed to the red mist right before halftime for kicking Diego Costa, who had hit defender Laurent Koscielny in the face on three separate occasions and was given a retrospective match ban.

The manpower advantage helped Chelsea record a combative 2-0 victory, with Calum Chambers' late own goal coming after Gunners midfielder Santi Cazorla was given his marching orders in the 79th minute for his second yellow card.

"We are convinced that our points and records are linked with our discipline, and on that day we suffered because we were a bit unlucky due to the decision of the referee," Wenger said.

Arsenal enter this match coming off a scoreless draw at Stoke City, with Petr Cech preserving a point with a crucial double save in the second half. The ex-Chelsea keeper furthered his Premier League record with his 171st clean sheet and 10th since moving to north London in the offseason, realising Mourinho's fears that Arsenal would be a better team if the Czech international no longer deputised for Thibaut Courtois.

Chelsea are 3-4-0 in all competitions since Mourinho's departure, but their defensive frailties were again exposed in multigoal draws at home versus West Bromwich Albion and Everton in their two most recent matches. The Blues twice rallied from deficits against the Toffees, salvaging a 3-3 deadlock last Saturday on John Terry's disputed goal in the eighth minute of second-half stoppage time.

The equaliser was redemption for Terry, whose 50th-minute own goal started a six-goal frenzy after a tepid opening 45 minutes. While the talisman admitted after the match he was offside before slotting past Tim Howard, he did feel the result was something Chelsea can carry into this match.

"It was an important one to keep that little momentum going," Terry told Chelsea's official website after scoring at least one goal for a 16th season. "We are still undefeated since the manager has come in. We need to start winning games, but every game is tough and every opposition seems to be stepping up their game.

"There was unbelievable desire from the players. ... We want to get out (of) this position we are in, and we will do for sure if we can continue that fight and desire."

The Blues are actively seeking reinforcements during the transfer window and reportedly are close to signing Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato from Sao Paulo with talks to land Shakhtar Donetsk star Alex Teixeira flagging. One-time Barcelona star Pedro appears to be the odd man out of Guus Hiddink's rotation, and forward Radamel Falcao has failed to impress his way to even being a reserve.

Chelsea - who have yet to win back-to-back Premier League matches - are 1-3-0 in their last four trips to the Emirates Stadium with the last two scoreless draws. They haven't found the back of the net there in 217 minutes dating to Juan Mata's match-winner in a 2-1 victory Sept. 29, 2012.

Arsenal are unbeaten in their last nine league home matches (7-2-0), outscoring opponents 16-4 in that spell.