Chelsea fans have had a funny time of it. In the past few years they’ve seen their club come back from the brink of extinction to become the richest club in the world. They’ve had the most charismatic manager in European football, and the least. They’ve won two titles, suffered Champions League Final defeat, and seen their club and team transformed beyond recognition.
All of that seems a long way from the Chelsea my brother grew up supporting. He is close to me in more than simply age, and I was a first-hand witness as he followed the likes of Gavin Peacock, John Spencer, and Eddie Newton to the odd cup run and regular mid-table mediocrity.
In recent seasons, the rivalry between the clubs has intensified due to Chelsea’s emergence as title-challengers (and winners), adding another string to the bow of our brotherly banter.
Yesterday, ahead of what is undoubtedly a massive game for both sides, I spoke to him about all things Chelsea, all things Arsenal, and the men who bestride that gaping ravine: Ashley Cole, Nicolas Anelka, and our very own (well, ish) William Gallas. Enjoy:
Chelsea are top of the league, and a home victory against Cluj away from Champions League qualification. And yet, with a little dip in the once formidable home form, there are suggestions that Phil Scolari is now ‘under pressure’. What have you made of his first few months as Chelsea manager?
I don’t think he is under pressure. The media have posed some questions, but the fans understand that in general we are performing better than we were this time last year. He will be judged in May.
Well, regarding the league: having dropped points at home to Liverpool and Manchester United, how important is it to beat Arsenal this weekend?
People have made a lot out of our supposed failure to win a ‘big game’. We beat Roma (just) at home, but have lost to Liverpool, Roma (away), and scraped draws against Man United, Spurs and Bordeaux. A win would silence those who doubt our credentials to grind out results in these ‘Grand Slam’ clashes, but the fact that this is our final opportunity to pick up three points at home to one of our supposed title rivals is still no reason to panic.
There has been a lot of talk about Chelsea’s new expansive style – have you noticed a difference?
We have played some fantastic stuff at times this year, dominating teams and really hammering them as opposed to going 2-0 up and taking it easy. But we also played some fantastic stuff under Mourinho and Grant. In my view, the difference does not lie within the style of play, but in the manner in which Scolari encourages the players to take advantage of demoralised, defeated teams by urging our players to press forward for more goals. When hosting Bordeaux, we took an early 2-0 lead but then did not score for another hour or so. Throughout the game, Scolari made his frustration quite clear, and we ended up grabbing a couple of late goals to win 4-0. It is, to an extent, a Brazilian mentality, but that is not to say that we are playing ‘Samba-style jogo bonito’: style of play has a lot to do with personnel, too. We play a different way with Anelka in the team. The wide players have to come in off the flanks to support him, and we try to play through the middle. It is prettier when it works. However, evidence is mounting that it is a less effective method of breaking teams down.
One player who seems to have benefited from Chelsea’s liberation under Scolari is Ashley Cole, who seems to be playing a role similar to the one which made him the best left-back in the world at Arsenal. Is he in his best form since his controversial move to Chelsea?
Firstly, let me just state that the claim that our “full-backs never got past the half-way line under Mourinho” is a complete myth. The performances of our full-backs have attracted attention in recent weeks because they are playing well and the team are getting results. We now have a proper, attacking full-back on the right hand side in José Bosingwa, a fine acquisition and another reason the full-backs are subject to more column inches (not that media scrutiny has ever been a problem in the case of Mr Cole). Ashley has always defended terrifically well for us. Going forward, however, he is not as good as Wayne Bridge. He does not run at players and he cannot cross the ball. He is at his best when getting to the by-line and cutting the ball back, and he’s had the opportunity to do that more so in recent weeks, when fit. He has been playing well for a while now, and saves his performances for the big games (I felt he was our best player in Moscow in May, for instance).
When William Gallas came the other way and joined Arsenal, did you have any suspicion it might go as wrong as it has?
No, although his petulant nature has always been evident. Chelsea fans had become accustomed to opening their newspapers to be greeted by headlines such as “GALLAS: I WANT PAY RISE”, “GALLAS: I WANT OUT” or “GALLAS: I WON’T PLAY LEFT-BACK AGAIN”. This all peaked with the absurd claim that he once threatened to score an own-goal. Frankly, I don’t believe that story and feel it was taken out of context, but none of us fans were surprised to read it by that stage.
However, his performances were consistently sensational. We really believed we had one of the top five defenders in the world on our books, and – in spite of all of the above – were gutted to lose him in 2006, and it took a lot to admit that. I cannot comprehend or explain such a dramatic loss of form since his transfer to The Emirates.
Did you ever see him as a potential captain?
No, primarily because of the events I just described. Captains are either great leaders or great players. They are either a commander of troops or a figure players can turn to as a source of inspiration. Gallas could have been the latter, were it not for his tendency for tantrums and his inability to keep his gob shut. Wenger has been fantastic for Arsenal, but the appointment of Gallas as captain was a monumental gaffe, and I believe he must privately acknowledge that, in spite of what he’s been saying to the press.
What kind of reception do you think he’ll get at Stamford Bridge?
He will get a poor reception, although sensible fans will recall some excellent displays, some vital goals, and the fact that we have not won the league since he left. However, loyalty and dedication matters more to many fans than ability, and – like A.Cole – it’s not going to be an enjoyable 90 minutes for him.
Is this ‘a good time’ to play Arsenal?
Better than five years ago. But no, in truth, I don’t think it is. I feel that sides which are decnet yet out-of-form tend to pull together when a big game comes knocking. Look at Arsenal’s performance against Man Utd last month. The chips were down, the side was depleted, but the result was remarkable. I expect Arsenal to put in a good display on Sunday.
But do you consider Arsenal to be a serious title threat? If so, why? If not, why?
No. Arsenal will not finish in the top three this season, and have failed to progress at the same rate as Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool. Even last year, Chelsea fans were confident that Arsenal would be unable to sustain their good form until May, and were merely over-achieving early doors. This view is not intended to be an insult, but just a realistic outlook. Great, great players – Campbell, Vieira, Pires, Edu, Bergkamp, Henry – have not yet been properly replaced, and it really is as simple as that. People can talk about “leadership” and “battling qualities” all they like. At the end of the day, Arsenal’s team today is not (yet) good enough to win the league, despite a wealth of wonderful young talent.
I don’t think many Arsenal fans will disagree with that assessment, depressingly. How much of a miss will the suspended Didier Drogba be?
A huge miss. You don’t get more of a big-game player than Didier Drogba, who more often that not does the business against the big boys, particularly at Stamford Bridge. My people in Milan tell me that Phillippe Senderos still has nightmares, and that Mathieu Flamini has to regularly come into the Swiss’ hotel room on away-trips to convince the defender that Drogba is not in fact “hiding in the wardrobe”. Drogba also offers the crucial alternative of a Plan B, and given Arsenal’s frailty when bombarded aerially, his inclusion could have been a big plus.
That said, with Nicolas Anelka in such good form, would Drogba have been guaranteed to start?
Tough question. Anelka is putting the ball in the back of the net, and it’s almost impossible to argue with that. But that is not to say that Drogba would not have done the same had he been fit and playing. I would feel more confident going into tomorrow’s game with Drogba leading the line, because he is a better player. But tomorrow is Anelka’s chance to hit back at those who doubt his ability to perform (though he doesn’t really ever perform, he just scores) in a big game.
Who do you consider the dangermen for Arsenal, and where do you think the game will be won and lost?
The reliance on Cesc Fabregas for Arsenal to succeed is astonishing. Handing him the armband has only served to highlight how he really is becoming an emblem for what Wenger is trying to achieve, but it is a huge amount of pressure for a 21 year old’s shoulders to bear. I believe that Fabregas is Arsenal’s best player, but look elsewhere when picking out dangermen. The return to fitness of Sagna and Adebayor could prove vital. I know that John Terry rates (and possibly fears) the latter, whereas Sagna forms one half of arguably the best pair of attacking full-backs in Europe.
Finally, would you venture a prediction?
I think it’ll be a draw, and I’ll say 1-1. Arsenal cannot afford to lose and I’m sure they’ll turn up. We, for our part, have been performing quite tepidly of late, and a lack of firepower up top means that if Arsenal do what Liverpool did – defend deep but narrow – they shouldn’t concede more than one.
There we go. Thanks to the bro for that. It’s horrible reading to hear that we’re just not perceived as a threat in the title race, but utterly unsurprising all the same. That said, it’s clear he’s taking nothing for granted as regards the result today, and I share his belief that if we perform to our capacity we have a good chance of taking something away with us (even if it’s just John Terry’s head on a stick). Someone on the arseblog forums mentioned that some bookmakers are offering 200-1 on Arsenal to win 1-0 with Gallas to score. Tempting, eh…
N.B. As well as the game today, there is the FA Cup Third Round Draw. We’re the number 1 ball, which makes me happy for reasons it’s hard to rationally explain. Anyway, it’s at 2.15pm, and tends to be quite interesting.
Come On You Gunners.