CL Preview: Arsenal-Chelsea
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Ranieri's last chance to beat Arsenal? (AFP)
After the compelling first leg at Stamford Bridge finished all-square at 1-1, both Arsenal and Chelsea still have everything to play for at Highbury with neither side having any reason to doubt their ability to make the last four of Europe's premier club competition.
One of the two London giants is just 90 minutes away from a European Champions Cup semi-final – probably against Real Madrid – with a possible Final showdown against AC Milan waiting beyond that hurdle.
Victory on Tuesday night for either Arsenal or Chelsea will see that club go further in this competition than ever before, so the incentive is massive. Arsenal probably hold the edge after the first leg by virtue of having scored an away goal – but that will only be influential if the Highbury encounter finishes 0-0.
Such a scoreline is not impossible but certainly improbable, though this match in many ways pits the irresistible force of Arsenal's attack against the immovable object of Chelsea's defence.
The Blues know they have to score on Tuesday to stand any chance of winning the tie; but having scored on each of their last seven visits to Highbury they will not be daunted by that challenge. Their problem is that Arsenal have scored more than them in six of those seven visits in League and Cup. Indeed, Arsenal's unbeaten run against their King's Road rivals now stretches to 17 games in all competitions. Another problem for Chelsea is that in their last three clashes with the Gunners they have taken the lead but not been able to hold on to it.
Nevertheless, this Champions League battle will not be decided by history or even recent form, but by who has the temperament, skill, determination and luck over the 90 minutes. And on that basis Chelsea can feel as optimistic as their opponents. Their away record in this Champions League campaign is exemplary: they have yet to concede a goal. Psychologically, a match against Arsenal at Highbury will feel more Premiership than European, but Chelsea will have to keep telling themselves this is a different, major competition, and play accordingly in what is now just a one-off.
Their CL campaign has been steadier and less nerve-wracking than that of their opponents, who teetered on the verge of elimination during the group stage. Arsene Wenger's side had won none of their opening three fixtures and against Dynamo Kiev on matchday 4 were just a minute away from failure when Ashley Cole popped up with his only goal of the season to date. It transformed the picture. The Gunners reeled off five straight wins before drawing at Chelsea, renewed belief in their European capabilities suffusing their performances, and will be confident of finishing the job on home turf. The Blues, though deflated by conceding Robert Pires's header just six minutes after Eidur Gudjohnsen's fine opportunistic strike, are also confident they can get a result at Highbury – even if it's a scoring draw. 2-2 or higher would see them progress on the away goals rule.
It's a London derby, of course – and yet so much more than that. It pits first and second in the Premiership against one another. It gives Chelsea another chance to end their jinx against the Gunners, which began in November 1998, in arguably the biggest either club has contested. It could decide the fate of Claudio Ranieri – with a passage into the semi-final making it that much more difficult for Chelsea to sack him. And it could make or break Arsenal's bid for the Treble [Double if they lost on Saturday in the FA Cup].
Arsenal – WWWDDL
The Gunners go into this crunch match on the back of a rare domestic defeat, which may test what has previously been seemingly unbreakable confidence. The FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United also saw a rare occasion in which they failed to find the net. It was their third match without a win after drawing with United in the league and with Chelsea in the first leg.
Chelsea – DWWDWW
The Blues notched their fifth successive Premiership on Saturday with a 1-0 win away to Tottenham. The performance wasn't convincing, but once again this season Chelsea have secured three points in the Premiership when they arguably didn't deserve too. The result moves them to within four points of Arsenal. It followed league wins against Bolton, Fulham and Wolves. Champions League draws in the Champions League against VfB Stuttgart and Arsenal have been sandwiched in-between their fine domestic run.
Saturday's FA Cup exit not only ended Arsenal's dream of a treble, but also tested Wenger's squad with two potentially costly injuries. Jose Antonio Reyes and Freddie Ljungberg are now facing up to three weeks out at a costly time of the season. Ashley Cole is also still absent so Gael Clichy will continue to deputise at left-back. Sylvain Wiltord is back in contention after a lengthy absence but is unlikely to feature. Pascal Cygan and Ray Parlour are also injured.
The Tinkerman has refused to give much away as to who will play in the biggest match of his Chelsea premiership. After Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored his fourth goal in a week in the win at White Hart Lane it would be nearly impossible to leave the Dutchman out. Eidur Gudjohnsen, Adrian Mutu and Hernan Crespo will compete to partner him. Marcel Desailly is suspended after his needless red-card in the first leg at Stamford Bridge. Marcio Ambrosio will continue in goal in the absence of Carlo Cudicini.
PROBABLE STARTING LINE-UPS
Arsenal: Lehmann; Lauren, Campbell, Toure, Clichy; Gilberto, Vieira, Edu, Pires; Henry, Bergkamp
Chelsea: Ambrosio; Melchiot, Gallas, Terry, Bridge; Gronkjaer, Makelele, Lampard, Duff; Hasselbaink, Mutu.