The bitchiest feud this side of Glee takes centre stage again this weekend as Arsène Wenger brings his Arsenal side to Stamford Bridge, still looking for that first league win over José Mourinho’s Chelsea.
Almost eight years to the day since he left Chelsea under a cloud, Mourinho opened his Champions League campaign for this season with a home tie against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Parallels were being drawn before kick-off between this and the 1-1 draw with Rosenborg in 2007 that hastened Mourinho’s first departure. The appearance of Avram Grant in the crowd meanwhile, the spectre of Mourinho’s doom all those years ago, was enough to send the omen-hunters into overdrive…
As it was, Grant was only there to watch two of his former teams in action (having managed the Israeli champions for two spells in the 90s), while Chelsea were able to forget their domestic problems and come away with a comfortable 4-0 win.
While Chelsea were cruising at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal were toiling in Croatia. The seemingly worsening state of English clubs’ general performances in Europe continued as Arsène Wenger’s side succumbed to a 2-1 defeat against Dinamo Zagreb.
The fluctuation in fortune – considering the two sides’ respective league form so far this season – has set this weekend’s clash between Chelsea and Arsenal as one of the most intriguing in some time.
As glad as Mourinho would undoubtedly have been to collect the three points, he will also be acutely aware that Maccabi Tel Aviv were far inferior (or at least that was the impression they gave) then anything they have been facing in the Premier League, and as such can take very little from it.
Arsenal, for their part, can have such wild variations in form that Wednesday night’s disappointment will quickly be forgotten about – the isolated nature of their performances mean that rarely is a bad display directly connected to the previous or next one.
Chelsea’s dire start to the season – their worst in fact since 1988 – has meant that the visit of Arsenal has taken on an extra level of significance. With Man City in such good form, it’s a fixture Mourinho cannot afford to slip up in.
While the extra desperation of both of these sides to come away with all three points adds an interesting new narrative, this fixture is usually dominated by the mutual hatred of both managers. Mourinho versus Wenger has probably surpassed even the Frenchman’s bitter rivalry with Sir Alex Ferguson in terms of the sheer hostility it brings out in both protagonists.
That’s the way Mourinho likes it – he likes taking the measured “professor” reputation that Wenger has and riling him up to get a reaction. Phrases he has used to describe his counterpart such as “voyeur” and “specialist in failure” are obvious attempts to achieve this.
The bizarre aspect of that approach is that Wenger is an intelligent man – he knows exactly what Mourinho is doing – and yet he can’t help but rise to the Chelsea boss’s provocation every single time. Mourinho does what he does for a reaction, and Wenger gives him one. It’s like clockwork.
What makes this weekend’s fixture different is that Wenger has something of a psychological advantage. Chelsea need the victory far more than Arsenal do, and Wenger will know that.
He was typically stoic in his press conference, as he tends to be when Mourinho hasn’t fired a few shots yet, but given that this represents his best chance to beat Mourinho at Stamford Bridge in some time – possibly ever – he will have made it perfectly clear to his squad exactly what is expected of them.
As nice as the Community Shield was, in the grand scheme of things it means nothing. Inflicting a fourth league defeat on Chelsea, and on their home turf no less, would truly represent a lifting of the hex that has plagued Wenger for over a decade.
In his more private moments, José Mourinho will surely be slightly apprehensive about this weekend. If there is one man he dare not lose to, it’s Arsène Wenger. The Chelsea boss has put too much stock into aggravating and belittling Wenger for it to backfire now.
At arguably his lowest ebb as a top-level manager, the very idea of Wenger standing over him to stick a well-polished boot in must surely fill Mourinho with sweat-inducing dread.
Considering the fact that the FA might be about launch an investigation into an alleged sexist incident regarding team doctor Eva Carneiro, there are definitely a few problems mounting for José.
Not that he’s been showing signs of it or anything. His press conference before the Maccabi Tel Aviv match was so self-aggrandising it was slightly surprising that he didn’t open it by throwing his entire medal collection on the table and staring blankly sat those who had dared to criticise him.
Even during Friday afternoon’s interview’s, while insisting that the history of the fixture was not relevant, he could not help mentioning the fact that his own side’s record against Arsenal has been “fantastic.”
The pressure is starting to build for Mourinho a bit – probably not enough for it to be considered a full-blown crisis yet but they really need to start picking up some convincing victories soon.
The performances of the likes of Cesc Fàbregas and Branislav Ivanović have been poor but given Mourinho’s propensity for appraising the team as a collective, then collectively their efforts have been shoddy.
Wenger might never get a better chance to inflict lasting damage on Mourinho – and if it is to be a win for his Arsenal side that sets the wheels in motion to speed up his rival’s eventual downfall, then it might be one of his sweetest victories ever.