Terry may not be enough to spike Gunners
FOR those fed-up with England’s Pep-Jose love-in, the first big London derby offers a welcome respite – albeit not for long thanks to the almost preordained League Cup draw pitting the pair together again. But Arsenal vs Chelsea is always a feisty clash of cultures and should be worth a late night on Saturday as both harbour genuine title aspirations.
If the Manchester clubs have hogged the headlines, the Londoners have had reasonable seasons so far, both sitting on 10 points, only separated by a single goal. After taking one point from their first two games, the Gunners have crept up to fourth while Chelsea, one place behind, enjoyed a 100% record until a draw and a loss.
But there the similarities end. They are just 10km of busy London streets apart but might be in different hemispheres the way they are run, play and managed. Not to mention their ethos. Take last weekend for instance.
After the Gunners had run out comfortable 4-1 winners at Hull, news came of “a crisis meeting” at Chelsea. The Blues had lost to Liverpool on Friday night and, according to most of Fleet Street, Roman Abramovich had been huddled with his directors in an impromptu meeting until 1am on Saturday.
“Conte in crisis” and “Roman rage” ran just two of the headlines. The trouble for those newspapers was that there was absolutely nothing in the story – no meeting had taken place. But such is the Russian’s reputation that a home loss to a rival following a stuttering draw at Swansea was enough for the papers to assume the worst.
But even by Abramovich’s trigger-happy standards, to suggest that Conte’s job would be in jeopardy after one defeat would have been pushing it – especially when the Italian has cut such an impressive figure and been a big part of the wider approval of overseas bosses.
You wonder what they made of it in the Arsenal boardroom where Arsene Wenger has been able to display only the FA Cup on two occasions in a dozen years, yet appears as immovable as Herbert Chapman’s bust.
The media doting on this foreign manager lasted for half his 20 years in the job and even now he appears in no imminent danger from the board. Abramovich reached double figures with managers in less time.
Still, as Luis Felipe Scolari, Andre VillasBoas, Roberto di Matteo and now Jose Mourinho know, mess up in autumn and you’re looking at a winter of discontent. Even the Double couldn’t save Carlo Ancelotti. A scowl from the owner can put paid to a dynasty let alone a promising career. So, no matter how outrageous it seems, Conte knows he’s far more likely to be sacked this winter than his opposite number.
As for the on-field build-up to this game, although both won their League Cup ties in midweek in the same neck of the woods, their experiences were wildly contrasting. Where an under-strength Arsenal had a stroll against Championship Forest, a full-strength Chelsea found themselves 2-0 down to champions Leicester and needed extra time to come through.
Most of all, they needed Cesc Fabregas and John Terry. Fabregas, criminally under-used by Conte so far this season because he doesn’t defend, scored twice and showed the creative savvy the Blues have been missing. Terry wasn’t there and his absence was as conspicuous as it had been against Liverpool. Even at 35, whether he’s fit to start against Arsenal could have a big bearing on the outcome.
To be fair to Conte, he is still searching for his best team and in the summer was denied two players he badly wanted. But the fees demanded for Alvaro Morata and Kalidou Koulibaly were so prohibitive even Roman wouldn’t budge so cheaper alternatives (Michy Batshuayi and David Luiz) came instead.
The scarcely challenged concensus on Chelsea’s disaster last season is that Mourinho lost the dressing room. And just as safe an assumption has been that any halfdecent replacement would oversee a return to the sort of form that won the title two years ago. But can we be so sure? Mourinho certainly blew it, but what if the players aren’t that good anymore?
The defence is held together by Terry and sticking plaster while the attack is carried by Diego Costa. Eden Hazard is still frustratingly under- performing, Willian nowhere near the player he was last season, Gary Cahill an accident waiting for Terry’s return, Nemanja Matic nowhere near the rock of two years ago. Fabregas, lazy and lightweight though he may be, is the most creative player they have and if N’Golo Konte really is “like two players”, then the Spaniard is a luxury Conte can afford. Mourinho even tried to sign him for United in the summer which surely exonerates him from being behind the dressing room revolt. Where Conte still searches for the blend, Wenger is settling on his and has quelled his critics with his summer acquisitions. Granit Xhaka even brings longrange artillery besides bite in the tackle while Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Peres could also be decent value. Even if Terry does play, with either Cahill or Luiz alongside he may not be able to shore up the defence sufficiently to staunch the anticipated passing onslaught. Which is why Arsenal have to be favourites and Conte could be looking anxiously at his boss.