Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Will Mata Prove to Be the Juan?
When Chelsea visited the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal earlier this season, it was Juan Mata who proved the difference. The diminutive Spaniard was inspirational, grabbing an assist for Fernando Torres' opening strike before finishing off a fine performance with the winning goal.
He has been one of Chelsea's best performers again this season, and when the Blues come face-to-face with the Gunners in the Premier League on Sunday, he will no doubt prove just as menacing.
With the arrival of Demba Ba this month, Chelsea have other threats in attack, but in Theo Walcott, Arsenal themselves have a man who is a potent threat going forward, as his recent goalscoring form has shown.
We take a look at where this mouthwatering London derby could be won and lost.
1. Rafa Benitez vs. Arsene Wenger
Former Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo came out on top in this fixture earlier on in the season, but all eyes will again be on Rafa Benitez as he steps out at Stamford Bridge once more.
It's perhaps embellishing things somewhat to call the atmosphere at Chelsea "toxic," but their home performances have certainly not been helped by the ill feeling from some sections of the crowd who remain disenchanted with Benitez's appointment.
Can Arsene Wenger capitalise on this and get one over on the team that has long proved to be his nemesis for the best part of a decade? He will certainly hope so given the nature of Chelsea's 2-1 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates in September, where a lacklustre Arsenal were undone by a clinical Chelsea.
As for Benitez vs. Wenger, since the Spaniards time in English football, his record against the Arsenal manager reads W4 L8 D5. All of those games came as Liverpool manager, with each victory a home win, too. Blues fans will be hoping he adds to that home record on Sunday.
2. Gary Cahill vs. Theo Walcott
He's made no secret of his desire to play as Arsenal's main striker, and 10 goals in his last 13 outings has certainly done Theo Walcott's case no harm.
His contract negotiations still ramble on without pen being put to the paper—although it now seems Walcott will be signing a contract extension shortly—but this season has been a breakthrough campaign for him with his importance to Arsene Wenger's side growing considerably.
The comparisons with Thierry Henry are inevitable, and while he has a long way to go if he's ever to emulate the Frenchman, his hat-trick against Newcastle United in late December went some way to proving he has everything in his locker to do so.
Gary Cahill will be in for a busy afternoon marking Walcott, but the Blues man is an accomplished defender, and since signing from Bolton Wanderers last January he has shown just why he was highly coveted.
3. Juan Mata vs. Santi Cazorla
They may not come face-to-face on too many occasions at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, but one suspects whoever has the better game out of Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla will finish up on the winning team.
Cazorla's early impact at Arsenal was impressive this season, but his performances have waned somewhat, and he has lacked the consistency Mata brings to the Chelsea attack.
That said, he is still very much the fulcrum of the Arsenal midfield and will be instrumental in anything they produce going forward. He has grabbed his fair share of assists, while seven strikes thus far this term is a respectable return for his debut year in England.
Mata himself has 13 goals, far outstripping his compatriot, and Arsenal have already been treated to his vast talents this term when he inspired Chelsea's 2-1 victory at the Emirates.
Fail to control this pair and Chelsea or Arsenal will be staring defeat in the face.
4. Thomas Vermaelen vs. Demba Ba
Didier Drogba was often known for doing a number on Arsenal's defenders, and Thomas Vermaelen was just one of those on a long list of the Ivorian's victims.
The Belgian will be glad he no longer has to face Drogba in a Chelsea shirt, but in Demba Ba, the Blues have a man who could prove just as dangerous.
It's anyone's guess who Rafa Benitez will prefer to lead the attack against Arsenal on Sunday, but in Ba he has a striker perhaps more suited to exploiting Arsenal's frailties than teammate Fernando Torres.
The Senegalese man allows the Blues to play a more direct style, and with Arsenal's defensive issues continuing to hamper their season, Ba could cause real damage.
He proved that much in Newcastle's 7-3 defeat at the Emirates in December. Had in not been for Ba's brace, the Gunners would have been long out of sight that day before the floodgates opened. And with a more accomplished defence behind him, Ba will be banking on being on the winning side this time out.