I was hoping to get through this morning’s epistle without mention of Chelsea’s erstwhile manager. Not the interim incumbent, I don’t mean him, I mean the one in charge when they started their title defence last season. I told myself that he is no longer there and is therefore no longer relevant and is the subject of so much journalistic and blogging hot air that it doesn’t need me to blow any more up his skirt.
There is a problem though. I simply can’t decide if Chelsea with him means the same as it does without him. In terms of rivalry it is of course a London derby between two of the capital’s biggest teams and as such will always carry more weight than a more humdrum fixture. Even without the Graceless One in the dugout or prowling the touchline there are still players likely to pull on the blue jersey for whom we can feel no love. There is one in particular who has built a reputation for scoring goals when many observers wonder how he is still on the pitch to score them such is his otherworldly ingenuity for unpunished foul play.
Despite the presence of such malevolent incarnations of footballing villainy the fixture has, for me, lost a little of its sting. I never hated Chelsea for being another London club. Neither living in nor hailing from the Big Smoke I shan’t add that hypocrisy to my list of faults. I disliked them for their association with the sudden jarring influx of unearned dirty money which so distorted the competitiveness of the league. I disliked many of their players in that pantomime way we fans have of caricaturing certain footballers from other teams. But mainly I didn’t like that oafish, pestilential sore of a man who so utterly epitomises all that is abhorrent in the modern game.
And now he’s gone. From Stamford Bridge at least. And with him a whiff of corruption has been lifted from today’s opponents. I don’t know a great deal about signore Conte except what I saw on the touchline at the recent European championships. His CV is pretty impressive though and we’d all do well to be wary of any side he manages, especially one which, along with the notable scoundrels, contains some extremely talented footballers.
They’ve started in a remarkably similar vein to us this season. Losing to Liverpool, picking up one away draw and winning the rest. Apart from beating Burnley by three their victories and defeat have been decided by the odd goal. What little we can deduce from these early season stats suggests they aren’t scoring by the bucket load but neither are they leaking many at the other end. A gambling man might think a draw the likely result.
I’m not a gambler. I have an inelegant sufficiency of other vices thank you very much, but were I to fancy a flutter I must confess to a certain bullish premonition on this fine autumnal morning. I think we’re due a bit of an upturn in our fortunes against Fulham’s finest. There is something about Arsenal this season which might give other sides pause for thought. A certain irascible refusal to bow to injurious destiny even in the face of such shockingly adverse circumstances as going a goal behind in the first minute in Paris.
Call it the silly superstitions of a foolish old man but I have a good feeling about Arsenal right now, a feeling which extends beyond the usual wishful thinking. The last time I had this positive tingle we went on to win the FA Cup so who knows? Of course come seven thirty this evening my upbeat mood may have taken a dent, sport is anything but an exact science, but win lose or draw today I can’t help thinking this squad has all the necessary elements to achieve something special.
The potential return of our Gallic heartthrob up front will give Arsène the kind of selection headache managers are reputed to enjoy, but we are in such a position of strength right now that he could easily decide to leave his number one striker on the bench rather than risk him from the start. Alexis has shown he is more than capable of playing up front. As the team adjusts to the more fluid style of a central striker who drifts around the line, he looks like an increasingly lethal option. Theo especially dovetails well with him, coming in off the wing when our Chilean dynamo leaves space in the middle. The other option, now his dreaded first goal is out of the way, is our new signing. Alexis, Pérez, Walcott would be a scarily fast front three, if a little on the diminutive side.
Of course which striker we choose won’t matter a hoot if Granit Xhaka gets a game. Just give him the ball anywhere on the pitch and if you’re stood in front of him for goodness sake duck. Should he start though? To my mind Santi hasn’t done anything to get himself dropped but with a European game on the horizon and with his understudy in compelling, goal scoring form maybe he gets a rest today. Maybe not. Whoever starts I’m happy to trust the judgement of those with the plan. As we say every week, second guessing the boss is a mugs game so let’s be content to wait and see.
Andy Nic’s friend with the whistle needs to have a good game today. The result may be unpredictable but what we can know for certain is one Chelsea player will be trying to get someone sent off from the moment the first ball is kicked. It is the kind of childish, odious approach to the game which deserves a disrepute charge, but no matter how unjust and no matter how righteous their cause our players simply cannot afford to react to his sly, niggling provocation. The rules of the game do not allow for self imposed justice, we have no choice but to hope that for once the officials are actually equal to the task and can prevent him from ruining what ought to be an excellent sporting contest.
Right, that’s enough from me, I have hash browns to prepare. If you’re at the game today I hope you’re in good voice, if not I’ll see you here at five thirty. Salut!