Potential players comings and goings are all the talk ahead of Saturday’s mouth-watering London derby at the Emirates between top-five sides Chelsea and Arsenal.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
For fourth-place Chelsea (14-5-3), the rumours are that Gonzalo Higuain could be available for this match if the Pensioners are able to formally complete a loan deal with AC Milan and register him before the 12 p.m. Friday deadline.
If the signing goes through as expected, it would be a reunion of the Argentina international and coach Maurizio Sarri – their one season together at Napoli in 2015-16 resulted in Higuain scoring 36 goals in 35 league matches. That haul matched Gino Rosetti’s mark for most goals in the Italian top flight set in 1928-29 as Napoli finished runners-up to Juventus.
Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016 and totaled 40 goals in 73 league matches to help the Bianconeri win the scudetto each of the last two years. With the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus this season, the 31-year-old Higuain was surplus to goods and loaned to AC Milan, where he has six goals in 15 Serie A contests and eight in 22 overall.
With Higuain’s arrival comes the expected departure of Alvaro Morata, who has similar numbers – nine goals in 23 matches in all competitions – to the Argentine but has never truly found a comfort level in Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation.
Morata’s likely move back to Spain – Atletico Madrid is reportedly his destination – would leave Higuain and Olivier Giroud as Chelsea’s lone centre-forwards, a position where Sarri has not had more than two players all season while also using Eden Hazard in that role as a false nine.
In the event Higuain is not registered in time for this match, he would likely make his Chelsea debut Thursday in the second-leg semifinals of the Carabao Cup at Stamford Bridge where the Pensioners will attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit to Tottenham Hotspur.
Less than 13 kilometres to the north, the talk regarding Arsenal (12-5-5) again centers around Mesut Ozil. The former Germany international has been working his way back from an injury, but there have been times first-year manager Unai Emery has opted not to use Ozil, citing “matchups.”
Ahead of a match which could all but scuttle any chance of a top-four finish for the Gunners – a loss would leave them nine points adrift of Chelsea – Emery continued to be non-committal on what the midfielder’s role would be if he had one.
“I like to create the same spirit for all, and that spirit is every player gets and gives consistent work and moments with their performances but it’s not easy,” Emery told Arsenal’s official website about whether the whole Ozil saga is frustrating. “Sometimes you are better and sometimes you are worse. The most important thing for me is how he can helps us and how every player can help us with their consistency.”
Emery downplayed talk of Ozil potentially leaving in the January window but also did not commit to having him on the roster for the derby, simply saying that “after these two weeks maybe this Saturday will be okay for him.”
On the pitch, the Gunners seemed to be in need of Ozil considering their lack of playmaking options in a 1-0 loss at derby rival West Ham United. The lack of creativity was made all the more glaring as one-time Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri provided the cross for Declan Rice’s 48th-minute goal that proved decisive.
Aaron Ramsey tried to make something in his minutes as a substitute – Emery’s decision to drop him from the first XI was curious considering he also had fellow midfielder Lucas Torreira on the bench – but there was something clearly lacking from the Gunners, who are 3-1-4 in all competitions after having gone unbeaten in 23 matches.
“I think Saturday is a big test and our first objective is to be in the top four,” Emery said. “It’s more difficult after our defeat against West Ham but we can take positives, like if we win on Saturday.
“It’s a difficult, tough match and I think it’s a good test for us also. We wanted to go into this match with three points difference in the table, but our defeat at West Ham doesn’t give us this possibility. But Saturday, I am looking forward to playing this match because I want to look at my team, our team, playing with a good performance and also to show our supporters we can do more and we can do better than we are doing away.”
Chelsea, who may have felt unlucky to lose to Spurs mid-week, channeled that frustration into a 2-1 win over Newcastle United last weekend. Willian ended a 10-match goalless drought with his go-ahead marker on 57 minutes, a well-taken shot after being set up by Hazard – playing the false nine as Morata failed to rate to be on the bench, where Giroud watched all but the final three minutes.
The Pensioners controlled the match for the final half-hour after a lack of focus following Pedro’s goal allowed Newcastle to draw level before halftime.
“It’s an important win, it’s three points at home and we did the job,” said David Luiz to Chelsea’s official website after his long ball set up Pedro’s goal on nine minutes. “It was not an easy game for us. I think we could have killed the game in the first 25 minutes, but we didn’t score the second goal.
“In the Premier League every team can be dangerous from set-pieces and that is what happened. ‘They scored the equaliser and after that it is always difficult but I think the team was mature enough to be calm at half-time. Then, in the second half, we controlled the game and scored the second goal.”
Though Higuain is close to signing, there is still no understudy for midfielder and playmaker Jorginho following Cesc Fabregas’ departure to Monaco. Based on the current roster, Hazard, Ross Barkley or Mateo Kovacic would handle such responsibilities if the Italy international were to be sidelined.
Chelsea are seeking their first league double over Arsenal since the 2015-16 season after winning the reverse fixture 3-2 at Stamford Bridge in August. The first half was marked by frenetic bursts of clubs transitioning to their first-year managers – Chelsea raced to a 2-0 lead in the first 20 minutes on goals by Pedro and Morata, only to have Arsenal peg them back before halftime through Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Iwobi four minutes apart.
Hazard entered as a substitute on the hour and set up Marcos Alonso for the match-winner on 81 minutes. Chelsea are 1-3-2 in their last six visits to the Emirates but 4-4-2 in their last 10 league matches there.
Per Bet365, Chelsea are 7/5 favourites to complete their double over Arsenal, who are 2/1 home underdogs. The odds of the sides splitting the points are a 13/5 longshot among the options.
Based on the reverse fixture, oddsmakers are expecting goals in this contest as well as there are 4/6 odds for more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds to finish under that bar. There also 8/15 odds for both teams to score compared to the 11/8 offering of an ending with at least one clean sheet.
Despite being underdogs, Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the favourite to open the scoring at 7/2, edging out both Hazard (4/1) and Giroud (5/1). Alexander Lacazette (11/2) and Morata (6/1) round out the top five, with Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and Arsenal youngster Eddie Nketiah both 7/1 options.
Aubameyang is the only player better than even money at 10/11 for a goal over 90 minutes, while Hazard is 11/10 and Giroud rounds out the top three choices at 11/8. Lacazette checks in at 6/4, followed by Morata (7/4) and both Hudson-Odoi and Nketiah at 2/1. Chelsea wingers Willian and Pedro lurk further back at 11/5 and 5/2, respectively.
Ozil is a 9/4 option to score during the match and a 9/1 longshot to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal.
If the projected Arsenal XI above happens to be the actual starting XI, there is a very large question that needs to be asked of Unai Emery: Who is going to create in the middle of the park for the Gunners in that set-up?
Neither Xhaka nor Torreira are true 10s, and if the Gunners use a three-man back with the pair as shields, Emery is all but ceding possession to Jorginho to let him ping passes all over the attacking third for Chelsea. And that does not even begin to speculate on how Hazard could conceivably drift between Xhaka and Torreira and in front of Arsenal’s back three to draw a higher lane before laying the ball off to Willian or Pedro.
Some of the gloss has clearly come off Emery in recent weeks as Arsenal have regressed to the mean to a degree. Couple that with resurgent Manchester United — who came calling to the Emirates on Friday for a fourth-round FA Cup tie — and there is now the long-awaited hand-wringing that came with the Gunners in this rebuilding season.
Equally off-putting is Arsenal’s lack of movement in the January window, now exacerbated by Ramsey coming to terms to join Juventus next season. On the one hand, it is all well and good that this lingering distraction is put to bed, but as one playmaker is set to leave and a second (Ozil) is both recovering from injury and/or does not rate high enough to consistently make the first XI, it is fair to wonder what the long-term plan is or who a potential midfield target will be come season’s end.
Arsenal will not finish worse than sixth barring an unforeseen disaster, but winning the Europa League will be no easy task — especially if Chelsea are likely going to play with an eye to win it as well with United now mucking things up for a top-four spot. These next two matches are precariously poised for the Gunners, and two losses could create a maelstrom.
For Chelsea, there will be no Higuain for this match, but the eagerly anticipated reunion with him and Sarri will be made for the second leg of the Carabao Cup. Nothing like a little pressure to mark your debut on the Bridge. That said, bringing in Higuain and letting Morata walk — if that does wind up being the case — is going to put a lot of pressure on this club to either re-sign Hazard or command an outrageous transfer fee for the Belgium international.
It could also mark the beginning of a clear-out in the attacking positions in which Chelsea go younger and build around Hazard or find the next superstar to take some of the heavy burden that will accompany Christian Pulisic when he arrives next season.
As for the derby itself, Chelsea appear to be in a much better frame of mind on and off the pitch. They were unlucky losers at Wembley versus Spurs and shook off a lull versus Newcastle last weekend to win.
The reverse fixture against Arsenal will be a reminder the Pensioners cannot switch off like that because the Gunners can make them pay, but if Jorginho and N’Golo Kante can boss the midfield while staying on Arsenal’s half of the pitch, this is a match Chelsea should be able to control and claim three points from.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 1, Chelsea 2.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 23 PREVIEWS:
Wolverhampton (8-5-9) vs. Leicester City (9-4-9)
Liverpool (18-3-1) vs. Crystal Palace (6-4-12)
Manchester United (12-5-5) vs. Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-10)
Southampton (4-7-11) vs. Everton (8-6-8)