/ 24 February 2012

Gunners, Blues feel the heat as league resumes

The Premier League title duel between Manchester United and Manchester City could be relegated to sideshow status this weekend as all eyes descend on the turmoil bedevilling Arsenal and Chelsea.

With Manchester City facing lowly Blackburn on Saturday and United travelling to Norwich 24 hours later, few will be surprised if City’s two-point lead at the top of the table remains intact come Sunday night.

Yet the stakes could not be higher for Arsenal and Chelsea, whose campaigns are teetering on the brink following a series of poor results which have left their managers Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas facing stinging criticism.

Arsenal followed their 4-0 thrashing at AC Milan weekend with a dismal FA Cup exit at Sunderland last weekend, a result that effectively ensured the Gunners’ trophy drought would enter an eighth year.

While conventional wisdom suggests Wenger has built up enough reserves of goodwill during his 15 years at Arsenal to be the author of his own exit strategy, the recent chorus of criticism directed at the Frenchman will become deafening if Tottenham prevail in Sunday’s north London derby at the Emirates.

Spurs, who beat Arsenal 2-1 at White Hart Lane earlier this season, have not done the double over the Gunners for nearly 20 years.

A victory for Harry Redknapp’s side would see Spurs open up a 13-point lead over Wenger’s men, a vast gulf between third and fourth place that underscores the acute sense of two clubs heading in opposite directions.

Arsenal defender Johan Djourou has challenged his team-mates to prove that the club remain “the kings of London.”

‘Go to war’
“When you play (Tottenham), you forget the table; it is a battle and the best team will win,” Djourou said.

“They are in great shape this season, they have been playing a lot better than before but you have to forget about that and go to war.

“At the start of the season some people wrote them off because they lost a few games but since then they have been unbelievable. But it is up to us to show that we are the kings of London.”

While Wenger is expected to weather the current storm, Villas-Boas’s position at Chelsea remains shrouded in uncertainty despite the Portuguese manager’s insistence that he retains the full backing of owner Roman Abramovich.

The 34-year-old Chelsea boss lurched into another crisis this week as his team slumped to a 3-1 loss at Napoli which has left the Londoners staring down the barrel of Champions League elimination.

Villas-Boas’s selection for the match has come under severe scrutiny following the decision to omit Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole from his starting line-up.

Strained relationship
Several reports have suggested Villas-Boas is struggling to get a grip on a full-scale dressing room mutiny, with headlines this week such as “Bench warfare” and “Battle at the Bridge” highlighting the strained relationship between the coach and his players.

Failure to beat relegation-threatened Bolton on Saturday could prove fatal to Villas-Boas, who has won just four of his last 14 games.

Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic is adamant that the club needs to unite behind the manager to have any chance of saving their season.

“Chelsea has to be the priority for everybody,” Ivanovic said. “We all have to think like this to try to make the position better.

“Things like this always happen when you are losing and they always leak out. But it is the manager who decides who plays and then it is up to us players to do our jobs.

“This is a critical period for this club and we will only get through it if we stay positive and keep working hard.”

Villas-Boas’s Bolton counterpart Owen Coyle meanwhile rallied to the support of his opposite number, backing him to transform Chelsea — provided he is given enough time to do so.

“There is no doubt that it is a season of transition at Chelsea because of what he wants to put in place and without wishing to use cliches, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Coyle said.

“Sometimes it takes time, but I do believe Chelsea have got the right man in place to bring all that to fruition.

“The one commodity we ask for in football is time. Sometimes it is not given, but if it is – and I believe it will be at Chelsea – then I think they will reap the rewards.”

Fixtures (3pm GMT unless stated)
Saturday: Chelsea v Bolton, Newcastle v Wolves, QPR v Fulham, West Brom v Sunderland, Wigan v Aston Villa, Man City v Blackburn (5.30pm)
Sunday: Arsenal v Tottenham (1330), Norwich v Man Utd (1.30pm), Stoke v Swansea (3pm) — Sapa-AFP