Fixtures between Chelsea and Arsenal in the Premier League era have often been iconic and unforgettable for any number of reasons, but few now seem as symbolic as the meeting between the two sides at Stamford Bridge last season.
In one of the most memorable matches of the 2011/12 campaign, a crazy early November game between west and north London finished 5-3 to Arsenal.
As well as inflicting a first home defeat on then Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas, it was significant for a hat-trick from Robin van Persie, and as daft as it may sound to say about a seasoned Premier League performer, I do think that was the day the Dutchman arrived as player to match any of the division’s best.
That match set the tone for what was to come over the coming months: Van Persie continued to score goals by the bucket-load and Villas-Boas never really recovered, losing the next match at home to Liverpool and going on to be sacked.
But that eight-goal thriller now strangely acts as a foreboding sign, a warning for what was to come for both teams and their differing struggles this season.
Of course, Van Persie is no longer at Arsenal and the gap he left in the team is still a chasm.
His replacements, Lukas Podolski and especially Olivier Giroud, prove just what they are missing, being nowhere near as good as the departed ex-captain, too inconsistent and brittle for the rigours of the Premier League, and it shows in the goalscoring statistics.
Of the Gunners’ 40 league goals, 23 have come in just four games against Southampton, Tottenham, Reading and Newcastle. That may be impressive, but by proxy that means Arsenal have scored just 17 times in their other 17 games, which explains why they have won just nine of their 21 fixtures and sit six points behind fourth-placed Spurs (albeit with a game in hand).
But that home defeat was just Chelsea practising for when Rafa Benitez took the reins at Stamford Bridge. Away from home, the Blues have been majestic, winning seven of the nine games under the former Liverpool coach and scoring 23 goals at the same time.
It couldn’t be more different on their own patch. Chelsea’s 2-2 draw against Southampton in midweek means the European champions have failed to win five of the seven games at Stamford Bridge under Benitez and whatever the fans think of the man (which is evidently nothing whatsoever), the atmosphere at the ground is clearly having an adverse effect on results.
And the truth is I don’t fancy backing either of them on Sunday. Not Chelsea at 4/5 when their win ratio at home is so poor and not Arsenal, even at 333/100, because, well, I don’t like backing Arsenal at all.
The draw has some traction at 5/2, but I am actually going to jump on an odds-against quote of 5/4 on there being under 2.5 goals, which, while going against the history of the fixture, seems to me to be in keeping with much of what has gone on for these two teams this season.
We can only look at Chelsea from when Benitez took over and even if there are goals galore on the road for the Blues, at home it is a different story.
The two wins in SW1 were goal-laden (8-0 and 6-1 wins over Aston Villa and Nordsjælland respectively) but four of the other five matches have featured two goals or fewer, in three cases one goal or fewer, and the more poison that seeps from the crowd, the harder it is for the players to perform to their maximum.
As for the Gunners, it is either all or nothing. As noted before, the disparity between 23 goals in four games and 17 in as many matches is there for all to see, but more often than not their games have been uneventful at both ends of the pitch.
Thirteen of their league games have seen under 2.5 goals scored – only Stoke City can beat that amount – while away from home, Arsenal’s fixtures are averaging just 2.18 goals per match, with eight of their 11 trips not seeing as many as three goals.
Seven of their last nine Premier League games have seen under 2.5 goals and with Benitez sure to fall into his cautious default setting – he can ill afford another home defeat – I think there is value in going against perceived wisdom and I’ll be on that 5/4.