Big Match Focus: Arsenal v Chelsea

The fight for fourth place in the Premier League comes into sharp focus when Arsenal host Chelsea in a crunch London derby clash.

Chelsea has every chance to open a nine-point gap to Arsenal.   -  afp

Chelsea has the opportunity to trample Arsenal's hopes of piercing the Premier League's top four when the two Champions League aspirants meet on Saturday.

The Gunners have encountered a difficult patch of form that has left them six points adrift of Maurizio Sarri's men and in immediate danger of being overtaken by the fast-improving Manchester United.

With Liverpool and Manchester City coasting clear in first and second, places at the pointy end are hard to come by and this weekend's clash at Emirates Stadium could have lasting ramifications on the final composition of European qualification.

Entire seasons hinge heavily on the outcome of what should be an entertaining London derby.

DEFENCE UNDERMINING ARSENAL'S DEVELOPMENT

Arsenal boss Unai Emery   -  Getty Images

 

Reliable centre-forwards have become a coveted commodity at Stamford Bridge but sparse attacking options should not discount the likelihood of Chelsea hitting the scoresheet on Saturday.

Arsenal was routinely exposed in a 3-2 defeat when the teams met in August and its defence remains in a state of flux five months on.

None of the top 11 teams in the Premier League have conceded more than the 32 goals the Gunners have shipped in their 22 games to date, a trend seemingly unlikely to change following Unai Emery's admission that loan signings are the club's only avenue to strengthening the squad.

Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Laurent Koscielny formed a three-man defence in the 1-0 loss to West Ham, which was the sixth league match in succession in which Arsenal has failed to secure a clean sheet.

That represents the longest such run in the competition and, having held a Premier League opponent goalless just once in their past 15 attempts, Emery's men appear vulnerable to an ambush at any moment.

FORM GUIDE

Alvaro Morata leads Chelsea celebrations against Arsenal   -  Getty Images

 

Arsenal's long unbeaten streak came to an end against Southampton in December and it has now lost four of eight matches in all competitions.

Its home form has been more encouraging: the north London outfit is unbeaten in 10 league fixtures at Emirates Stadium, winning eight and drawing two.

Chelsea could be the team to erode the aura built in that time as it attempts to win a fourth consecutive Premier League away game within the same season for the first time since December 2016.

Last weekend's 2-1 defeat of Newcastle United marked the Blues' third victory in four top-flight fixtures, but the points dropped against Leicester City and Southampton in recent times will stick in the mind if another positive result is not achieved.

HEAD-TO-HEAD (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang v Eden Hazard)

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finds the net against Fulham.   -  Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

 

Chelsea is reportedly on the verge of completing a deal for experienced marksman Gonzalo Higuain in news that Eden Hazard must surely welcome.

Belgium star Hazard, linked consistently with Real Madrid, is without a goal in each of his past five competitive appearances, the two most recent of which he has played as a false nine.

The scintillating form seen earlier this season might well be rekindled if Higuain arrives to shoulder the burden of battling central defenders and Arsenal would be wise not to overlook Chelsea's chief creator regardless of where he lines up on the pitch.

Hazard has notched 10 times in 21 appearances in the Premier League this term, is creating an average of 3.1 chances per match, and is on the cusp of recording 200 career goal involvements in league matches.

Arsenal, however, has a key attacker of its own seemingly ready to recapture his best form. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, held goalless twice in his three most recent outings, has made Emirates Stadium his personal playground since signing from Borussia Dortmund.

The 29-year-old boasts 15 goals and five assists in 18 Premier League home games for the Gunners and, though several of his stats are modest in comparison to Hazard, including a surprisingly inferior average of shots on target, his 12 goals for the club in 2018-19 have been worth more points than those of any other player.

HISTORY SAYS...

Chelsea has every chance to open a nine-point gap to Arsenal.

The Blues have been beaten just once in the last 14 league editions of this fixture and have recorded clean sheets in seven of the last 11 league encounters between them.

Overcoming its city rival for the 19th time in the competition would see Chelsea complete its fifth Premier League double over Arsenal, a feat otherwise managed only by Liverpool and Manchester United.

Emery, meanwhile, is winless in all three of his previous meetings with this weekend's opponents.