Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Complete Preview, Team News and Projected Lineups
Arsenal will travel across London on Sunday to play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. But this is a very different Gunners side from the one that was easily taken apart at home the first time they met their crosstown rivals.
Gervinho netted just before halftime for Arsenal that day, but two defensive errors were all it took to give the Blues the goals they needed to claim all three points.
A quick look at Arsenal's starting XI shows how strikingly different the team is now.
There were three major absences back then, but each player is back. Chelsea will have to deal with an almost fully fit Arsenal squad.
Bacary Sagna had not yet recovered from the broken leg he sustained against Norwich City last season, so Carl Jenkinson deputized for him. These days, Jenkinson could use a game here and there, but Sagna has largely returned to his best and will look to shut down the right flank.
Vito Mannone had to fill in for Wojciech Szczesny, as the Pole in goal sustained an ankle injury against Southampton before the match that would keep him out for several weeks. Mannone was serviceable but never really threatened Szczesny's place.
Then, of course, there is Jack Wilshere.
The Englishman, who has become such a pivotal part of Arsenal's midfield in such a short period of time, was weeks away from returning to the first team when the Gunners met Chelsea at the Emirates. Thus Arsene Wenger fielded a midfield triumvirate of Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby and Santi Cazorla.
On Sunday, Wenger will have three more outstanding players to choose from but others who are unavailable.
Gervinho, for example, is in South Africa at the African Cup of Nations (though he's not much of a loss), and Laurent Koscielny, who partnered Thomas Vermaelen in the center of defense, will serve the second game of his three-game suspension.
Most crucially, Mikel Arteta, Arsenal's midfield linchpin and metronome, will miss the game. A calf injury will likely keep the Spaniard on the sidelines for the next three weeks. As we know, though, that's an ambiguous prognosis.
Chelsea are also much-changed: Their manager is different.
However, he's not unfamiliar to Arsene Wenger or Arsenal fans. Formerly with Liverpool, Rafa Benitez probably has more pressure on him to win than any other manager in the Premier League.
He will place much of his hopes of getting three points on the shoulders of compatriot Fernando Torres, who was rested in midweek to allow Demba Ba to get his first goals for the Blues.
It's still possible that Benitez could stick with Ba up front, as the Senegalese has been in scintillating form this season. He's scored twice as many League goals as Torres in exactly the same number of appearances.
Benitez might also be able to call on John Terry for one of the first times in his brief tenure as manager. Chelsea's captain was named on the bench of their recent draw against Southampton, and what better time to return to the starting XI than against bitter rivals?
It seems almost inappropriate to have an Arsenal-Chelsea match without Terry present, considering several of the memorable ones he has played.
Branislav Ivanovic is also likely to return to the starting lineup. Frank Lampard, whose recent performances as stand-in captain have been nothing short of inspirational, deserves to keep his place if fit.
There is little doubt that Arsene Wenger will construct a team very different from the one he put out in September. Here's a possible starting XI.
Crucially, Olivier Giroud is starting at striker, and Theo Walcott is on the right. The Frenchman is Arsenal's best option at striker right now for a plethora of reasons and should be given a prolonged run of starts to show what he can really do.
Before you get out your pitchforks for having Aaron Ramsey on the left wing, I am merely attempting to predict what Arsene Wenger will do.
And this move would not be totally disastrous anyway, as Ramsey showed a lot of potential with a productive second half display against Manchester City last weekend.
After three months out, Abou Diaby might not be trusted to start three games in a week, so there is a good chance that Francis Coquelin will retain his starting spot from the FA Cup tie against Swansea in midweek.
But if Diaby is fit and Arsene Wenger trusts him, there is no way Wenger can keep his dynamic presence out of the lineup.
Chelsea might counter like this:
Benitez has the advantage of having an extremely fluid, technically skilled lineup, but it's not without its grit. Ramires and Frank Lampard form a rock-solid base for the attacking midfielders to operate on.
Hopefully for Chelsea, that leads to Fernando Torres or others banging in at least one goal.
With an experienced defense and young, creative wingers, Arsenal will never be able to switch off. One lapse can cost either side invaluable points.
The last time these sides met at Stamford Bridge, we were treated to a thrilling 5-3 Arsenal victory, courtesy of a Robin van Persie hat-trick.
The Flying Dutchman is gone, of course, but don't be surprised if we have another great match this Sunday.
Don't forget that I'll have live blog coverage of Chelsea vs. Arsenal this Sunday, right here on Bleacher Report.
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