Arsenal ready to meet their nemesis: Chelsea's Didier Drogba
BACK in 2004, Chelsea supporters could only cast envious glances to north London after Arsenal were crowned Premier League champions without losing a game. It was a third title triumph in seven years for Arsene Wenger, and even though Chelsea had knocked
BACK in 2004, Chelsea supporters could only cast envious glances to north London after Arsenal were crowned Premier League champions without losing a game.
It was a third title triumph in seven years for Arsene Wenger, and even though Chelsea had knocked the Gunners out of the Champions League in a memorable all-London quarter-final, their semi-final defeat to Monaco spelled the end for manager Claudio Ranieri.
He had failed in a quest not only for European glory but to bring the championship back to Stamford Bridge for the first time since 1955.
That was a feat his successor Jose Mourinho managed in his first season 12 months later, and made it back-to-back successes in 2006.
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After the Special One fell out with Roman Abramovich one time too many in September 2006, Avram Grant and Luis Felipe Scolari could not quite reproduce the Mourinho magic.
Guus Hiddink stepped in for six months and delivered the FA Cup, but it took the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti to wrestle the Premier League trophy back from Manchester United last May.
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Now the tables are turned and the jealous looks are from north to west, and while Arsenal have not been waiting 50 years as Chelsea did before 2005, it is starting to feel like it for some Gunners fans.
Until Saturday's unexpected defeat to Manchester City, Chelsea had looked imperious this season, racking up 21 goals in five games before they met their match in terms of Italian defensive strategy at Eastlands.
However, Arsenal's shock defeat to West Brom coupled with Manchester United being held at Bolton means the Blues remain three points clear at the top, and are likely to stay there whatever the result on Sunday.
While clashes with Chelsea in recent seasons have taken on added significance, Arsene Wenger subscribes to the theory that the big games do not decide the title any more than ones against supposedly easier teams, and he seems to have a point.
When Ancelotti's side waltzed away from the Emirates with a 3-0 win last November, the death knell was sounded over Arsenal's title ambitions by pundits across the land.
An unbeaten run of 10 games ensued to put them back in contention, however, and even after successive defeats to Manchester United at home and then at Stamford Bridge in early February, Arsenal were still battling for the title into April.
Yet here we are again, just half a dozen games into the season, and the scenario is being put forward of Arsenal being too far behind already if they are beaten on Sunday.
Trailing by seven points after seven games merely shows how quickly things can change - Arsenal have let five of those points go in the past two games, when they surely expected to win both.
Such surprises could, and probably will, affect Chelsea later in the campaign. Ancelotti will be disregarding Saturday's defeat as a one-off, while his critics could argue that in their first genuinely tough game of the season, they came unstuck.
Either way, they will be keen to make up for that defeat this weekend, and Arsenal fans may be forgiven for thinking the game is a foregone conclusion if Didier Drogba runs out of the Stamford Bridge players' tunnel at 4pm on Sunday.
Such has been the hold the Ivorian has exerted over Arsenal in recent encounters it is impossible to look at alternative matchwinners, despite the plethora available on both sides.
He has scored 10 times in his last six games against the Gunners, five double strikes that have shaken Arsenal and Wenger to the core on each occasion.
His brace turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win in the 2007 Carling Cup final, did the same in a crucial league meeting at Stamford Bridge a year later, and again at Wembley in the 2009 FA Cup semi-final.
Since then the victories have been more comprehensive (4-1, 3-0, 2-0) but each time Drogba has bullied the Arsenal defence into submission, flattening their pretensions in a blur of muscle and finishing power.
In some ways he epitomises all that is different between the two clubs, the bludgeoning heavyweight who leaves Arsenal's technical stylists floundering on the ropes.
Arsenal have beefed up their defensive armoury in the summer, but this will be the ultimate test.
If they look frail again, Drogba will be waiting, and Wenger knows only too well Chelsea's dog of war will not hesitate to sink his teeth in when the moment comes.