LONDON. — Arsène Wenger has warned his Arsenal defenders to be ready for a fight when they confront Diego Costa in tomorrow’s match at the Emirates Stadium as the English Premier League soccer leaders seek to break down a psychological barrier by securing a first league win over Chelsea in more than four years.
Mesut Özil will return from a toe injury and Wenger also hopes Alexis Sánchez can feature at some stage having missed the past seven weeks with a hamstring complaint. Sánchez will be monitored in training to ensure there is no risk of a relapse should he play some part against the champions, with Arsenal steeling themselves for the prospect of facing Costa.
And Wenger has warned his Arsenal players they will have to be ready to “fight” Chelsea’s Costa tomorrow.
Costa trained alone indoors on Wednesday as he continues his bid to recover from the bruised shin that forced him off against Everton last Saturday but will be available for tomorrow’s London derby.
He was at the centre of an explosive encounter between the sides at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season.
Gunners boss Wenger claimed in the aftermath of the match that referee Mike Dean was “weak”, and he sent a thinly-veiled warning to Mark Clattenburg, who will be in charge of this weekend’s return fixture, when he spoke to the media on Thursday.
Wenger said: “We have to be prepared for a battle because Costa gives you a fight. After that, it’s down to the referee.
“We have to focus on our performance. It’s another game where people look at us and see how we behave.
“It will be an intense game – as usual in the Premier League. Overall, I think because of the qualities of the players on the pitch and what is at stake for both teams, it will be a very intense battle.”
Bad-boy Costa ended up being banned for three games by the Football Association after a flare-up with Arsenal centre-half Gabriel in the reverse fixture in September.
Gabriel was sent off (though he later saw his red card overturned) as Chelsea won an ugly game which the visitors finished with nine men after midfielder Santi Cazorla was also dismissed by Dean. Wenger has also warned Arsenal not to underestimate troubled Chelsea as the English Premier League leaders bid to end their long barren run against their London rivals.
The Gunners’ 1-0 win over Chelsea in the Community Shield in August was Wenger’s first success against his arch rival Jose Mourinho in 14 attempts.
But that victory in the Wembley sunshine proved a false dawn for Arsenal in their attempt to end Chelsea’s stranglehold over their derby showdowns.
Wenger’s men were beaten 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in September in one of the few highlights of a miserable campaign for Chelsea, who have since parted company with Mourinho and are now under the interim stewardship of Guus Hiddink heading into tomorrow’s clash at the Emirates Stadium.
That loss meant Arsenal have failed to win any of their last eight league meetings with Chelsea dating back to their previous success in October 2011 and, even more remarkably, they have been unable to muster a single goal in the last five of those matches.
Even in the plush surroundings of their own Emirates Stadium, Arsenal have found it impossible to banish the Blues, with no victories in their last five meetings in all competitions since their previous home win against Chelsea in December 2010. So, although Arsenal sit top of the table while spluttering champions Chelsea are languishing four points above the relegation zone in 14th place, Wenger has suffered enough against the west Londoners to know not to take victory for granted.
“They are not in this title race but I know the quality of their team. This season there have been exceptional circumstances for them and they will be back. I consider them direct rivals,” Wenger said. “It is another game where people look at us and see how we behave because even if Chelsea are not in the best position you look at their squad.
“It is a big game because of the quality of players on the pitch and it has a big importance to us because we play at Emirates Stadium and we know it will be important to win these types of games.”
By the time Arsenal kick off tomorrow they could have been replaced at the top today by second placed Leicester, who host Stoke, or third placed Manchester City, who travel to West Ham.
Leicester are behind Arsenal only on goal difference but have struggled of late, winning only one of their previous seven matches in all competitions.
But Foxes boss Claudio Ranieri insists he isn’t concerned about the apparent loss of form of England striker Jamie Vardy, without a goal in six games, and Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez, who hasn’t scored in five, as his team’s incredible season reaches a pivotal point.
“Jamie is not fully fit now, because he was playing so many matches when he was scoring goals, without training,” Ranieri said. “Sometimes they score a lot of goals. Everything they touch is gold, sometimes not. Riyad is playing very well, he is very relaxed.” Manuel Pellegrini expects another difficult test of Manchester City’s ability to win a “different” title race when they travel to Upton Park.
West Ham were unbeaten in eight league games before losing at Newcastle last week and are sixth in the table.
Pellegrini’s team brushed aside a Crystal Palace side enjoying one of their best top-flight seasons last weekend with a comfortable 4-0 home win.
But City, a point behind the leaders in third place, were beaten at home by the Hammers in September and Pellegrini knows they can’t take any result for granted this weekend.
“If you have good players and a good performance as a team I think everyone can beat another team,” Pellegrini said.
“The difference is very slight between one team and another. That gives more importance to the Premier League.”
Fourth placed Tottenham, five points adrift of the leaders, face out-of-form Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Manchester United, buoyed by a 1-0 win at bitter rivals Liverpool that eased the pressure on boss Louis van Gaal, host Southampton as they look to close the gap on the top four and maintain their hopes of a title challenge.
Fixtures (all 5pm unless stated)
Today: Crystal Palace v Tottenham, Leicester v Stoke, Manchester United v Southampton, Norwich v Liverpool (2:45pm), Sunderland v Bournemouth, Watford v Newcastle, West Brom v Aston Villa, West Ham v Manchester City (7:30pm)
Tomorrow: Arsenal v Chelsea (6pm), Everton v Swansea (3:30pm). — AFP