With the new year inching closer, the top clubs would be endeavoring to end this year on a high. With a deluge of games beckoning in the next ten days, each and every game would be treated  by all teams with respect, with the sole intention of garnering all three points. While Manchester United are sitting on top with a game in hand, Arsenal are in second place despite unconvincing home performances and Chelsea find themselves in a very unfamiliar fourth spot in the table. The Blues will be keen to bounce back after five games without a win, and the long break has given their stars Drogba and Lampard a chance to return to match fitness. However, they face an Arsenal side who have been unusually physical this time around, and one which is also a strong title contender.

The upcoming game would be incomplete without some mind games and bantering between rival fans. Our resident Blue Karan Yadav indulges in a quizzical discussion with me on the match.

1) Chelsea have now gone six weeks without a win. Do you think the Arsenal game will mark a turnaround in their fortunes for the rest of the season?

KY: I would like to believe Carlo’s claim that the “bad moment” has passed. At White Hart Lane, we saw glimpses of the Chelsea of old, displaying that fighting spirit. The manager was proactive and employed successful tactics to counter Gareth Bale, Terry delivered a “man of the match” performance, and Frank Lampard is back. Had it not been for a missed penalty, we would have returned from the lane with three well-deserved points, and this question about “turnaround in fortunes” would not have arisen. Anyway, I earlier believed that if we can get five points out of the games against Spurs, United and Arsenal, we would be all right; however, with the postponement of the United clash, I would trust Carlo to prepare his team for a win at the Emirates.

2) What do you think would have been the outcome of the Manchester United clash, had it been allowed to progress according to schedule? Do you think Samir Nasri’s claim about Manchester United possibly losing in this fixture would have come true?

KY: Prior to the game, there was unconfirmed news that United could be without Vidic, Carrick and possibly Nani. If that was indeed the case, Chelsea, after an inspired show against Tottenham, would have fancied their chances to the win the game and cut down the lead at the top. However, we would never know what might have happened, and it would be highly immature for me to rule out a United win. For the last 5-6 seasons, we have seen both the teams battle it out for league supremacy, and everyone associated with the clubs knows the importance of such games.

Coming to what your players are saying, before the Champions League draw, the Arsenal players and even Arsene Wenger were heard wishing for Barcelona, and their wish came true. Good luck with that. Anyway, I believe a quality player such as Samir Nasri should let his game do the talking and not indulge in such meaningless mind games; he’s too young for that.

3) The whole world knows that Didier Drogba is Arsenal’s eternal nemesis – 13 goals in 13 games against the Gunners says it all. Wenger had proclaimed Drogba could be stopped, and the Ivorian proved him wrong once again. Do you think Arsenal can possibly end this ruthless streak, especially when the game’s at the Emirates?

KY: Arsene Wenger had once said, “Didier does not do enough on the pitch.” Much to Le Professeur’s chagrin, the Ivorian has not looked back ever since. If one is to believe Drogba, his favourite team was Arsenal when he was still in France and he even heard Wenger was interested in signing him; however, nothing substantial materialised in this regard, and Jose Mourinho conveniently brought him to Stamford Bridge. Arsenal still is his “favourite” team, and we fans couldn’t be any happier with that.

To put things into perspective, Didier has struggled to hit top gear ever since recovering from the bout of malaria. Before his fortunate strike against Gomes, he had not scored in almost 12 hours on the field; his last goal came against none other than the Gunners on October 3rd. However, the prolonged break  would rejuvenate him, and nothing inspires him more than taking the field against Arsenal. In the absence of your best central defender, Vermalaen, it would be very difficult but not impossible for Koscielny and Squillaci to stop the Chelsea forward. If you commit Song too further into your own half to help out your defenders, it would leave a lot of free space in the midfield for Essien and Lampard to exploit. So, I don’t think Wenger will take such a chance.

4) Over the last few years, Chelsea fans (the resident fans of London) have been doing a lot of chest thumping about their club being the ‘Pride of London’, proclaiming to have overtaken Arsenal in this regard. My question is, will Chelsea continue to be consistently strong if and when Roman decides to sell the club? The Russian’s been playing musical chairs with managers, and there’s very little scope for nurturing talent, with the odd ones like McEachran getting very rare starts. Are short term plans of higher priority than long term ones?

KY: First of all, Roman Abramovich is more than just an owner, he is a fan. It’s a joy to watch him being emotionally involved in all the games at the Bridge. The Russian transformed a club that used to play delightful football, had its fair share of star players but had always underachieved into one of Europe’s super powers. We fans love him for what he has done and for who he is.

He had converted all the debt on the club into equity, a move which made him a shareholder at Chelsea, thereby clearing all unwanted debts. With time, he has changed his approach as well – no more do you see him splashing cash to bring in his favourite players or pay astronomical wages to the players or to the employees. Instead, a more conservative model is followed, to make Chelsea self-sustainable at the earliest.

However, like any human, he isn’t perfect. His impatience apparently led to the eventual departure of Mourinho. He wanted Ancelotti at the Bridge, but due to the Italian’s unavailability, we had to sign Scolari. Now that the Russian has his man, he should be patient with him, which is the case if we are to believe Ancelotti.

Coming to young talents, this season has seen us offload a few veterans and replace them with academy graduates. Joshua has been getting decent exposure and Gael has signed a contract extension. In seasons to come, all the money Roman has put into the academy would start to bear fruit.

Such developments point towards a long term association with the club.

5) In the first leg at Stamford Bridge, it took two moments of brilliance from Drogba and Alex to put the game out of Arsenal’s grasp. Do you foresee the team winning in the same vein for the Emirates encounter?

KY: A draw would not be a desired commodity when both the London teams take the field, as that would play into the hands of Sir Alex; ergo, I expect an intensely fought and closest derby between the two sides in years. I expect Arsenal to again enjoy considerably ball-possession and Chelsea to hit them on the counter or on dead-ball situations.

With Fabregas and Lampard back, both teams are equally matched at least on paper. It is quite possible that the tie could well be settled by moments of sheer brilliance from the likes of Drogba or Nasri. This season at Anfield, the champions were undone by a Fernando Torres masterclass, and Arsenal has players of similar pedigree, who are capable enough to hurt us. We have to be careful.

KY: Anyway, all the best for the game. Please ensure that Drogba has a memorable visit, after all Arsenal is his “favourite” team.

Essien and Fabregas – a lot depends on them.

PV: Thank you for answering. You may now shoot your questions, and I will try to respond in the same emphatic fashion.

1) To this day, it has been 5 (?) years since Arsenal last saw a glimpse of silverware. The situation is such that the Gooners are holding their breath for the Carling Cup this season. What’s your take on such drastic fall in expectations? Other clubs crave for stability, while you have a manager who has been at the helm for 14 years, a balanced ownership model which is arguably better than what Man United or Chelsea have, and players who have played together for a few years now, still the Gunners always fizzle out when it comes to real competitions. Why?

PV: Regarding the five plus years trophy drought, every team has its share of barren runs – Barcelona had a six-year barren run till 2004-05 season, and Manchester United endured 26 seasons without the League trophy. However , the mega-rich status of the Premier League has served to elevate the 5-year itch to undeserved attention.

Equating the Carling Cup with a drastic fall in expectations is incorrect, in my opinion; Chelsea won it twice and were runners-up once, and they played with a full squad. In our case, barring Cesc, Clichy and Chamakh (French league), none of the Arsenal players have ever held an trophy in their hands, and neither do they have the experienced heads who know what it means to fight for the club’s crest. Arsenal’s League Cup win in 1987-88 season spurred them to become genuine contenders, culminating with the famous 1988-89 Championship win at Anfield. The Gooners hope something of this sort will happen with the current lot.

Coming to the question of the Gunners not performing in the big stage, Arsenal have a very good set of players and can function well as a team, but they tend to get overwhelmed easily; this is where the likes of Vieira, Henry and Sol, men who feared no one and would bust a gut for the team, would have instilled fearlessness among the younger stars. Had Arsene  phased out the aging players instead of selling them in a very short span, the youngsters would not lose their nerves against the big teams in their presence. Instead, we now have a situation where everyone looks up to two 23-year-old stars to inspire a good performance; it’s because of this that Arsenal are losing their swagger big time.

2) Over the years, we have witnessed promising Arsenal campaigns being derailed due to a plethora of injuries. Are the players signed by Wenger too fragile for the English game or is your medical department to be blamed?

PV: Every time a player is injured, we tend to fear for the worst, thanks to Arsenal’s track record with injuries. The 2007-08 season was our best chance to clinch the trophy, but the horrific Eduardo injury seemed to have left the players distraught and upset Arsenal’s momentum thereafter. Arsenal have been really unlucky as well, with key stars missing in action around the same period, like what Chelsea experienced in the month of November; which is why this season looks more promising than the preceding ones, as we have a strong first team and lots of depth now.

Doubts have been raised about Arsene’s training methods, which includes a strict diet schedule, resulting in players missing out on enhancing the physical capabilities needed to excel in the English game. Other sources say that the initial diagnosis of injuries by the medical staff has been incorrect in some cases, resulting in lengthy lay-offs for players, which could have been avoided otherwise. Also, the style of play requires all players, barring the center backs, to run box-to-box in every game, which could push their limits in a congested season of football. Add to it the number of tackles we have been on the receiving end in previous seasons. Whether its just plain bad luck or a lack of foresight in training, Arsenal has done exceedingly well to stay in the top four in the face of these crises.

3) Arsenal had shown unusual grit and determination in away fixtures in season, and they went into the game at Old Trafford with the best away record in the league. Yet the Gunners couldn’t stand up to United’s discipline and surrendered. Do you think it was a one-off result or do you fear for the worst?

PV: It was definitely a one-off situation. For starters, we fielded a full strength squad in the game, players who are capable of changing the game. However, Wenger was outdone by Ferguson yet again in tactics; fielding our most in-form player Nasri on the right played into their hands, and Cesc Fabregas was not there to present another hugely creative outlet, given Rosicky is now a shadow of his illustrious self three seasons ago. Credit must be given to the Red Devils for sticking to the basics and seamlessly functioning as a unit while defending, for I believe that the Park goal was a stroke of fortune for the home side. Had that goal not materialized, I felt a draw would have been a possible outcome, as United would probably not sit back and defend a non-existent one-goal lead. Arsenal fans can only hope Wenger opens his eyes to his tactical frailty, and has a good strategy to encounter Chelsea at the Emirates. A win over Chelsea would also provide the impetus to gun down Manchester City in the next game.

4) There are two ways one can look at Chelsea – a team that has comprehensively beaten Arsenal home and away in their last five meetings or a team that’s in the middle of its worst run of form in a decade. According to you, which Chelsea will turn up at the Emirates?

PV: The postponement of the United-Chelsea clash has definitely given the Blues a lot of time to recover from their recent string of results, ensuring that Drogba and Lampard could be near full fitness before the Emirates trip. The absence of the trio of Lamps, Essien and Drogba has clearly exposed Chelsea’s overdependence on them, and Blue fans can be more optimistic about their team’s chance in the upcoming fixture. However, I don’t expect them to walk over Arsenal this time around, as the Gunners are also enjoying the benefits of the break, and will be raring to have a go at your team. Moreover, Cesc and van Persie will be expected to start, and Terry and Co can be sure of being kept on their toes all the time.

5) The last time Arsenal beat Chelsea was courtesy a RVP brace. This time, who is the single most important player for you who has the potential to decide the game in your favor, given he may or may not start? Also I would like to know, according to you where on the pitch will the hardest battle be fought – central midfield, on either flank or right up front between the central defenders and the opposition strikers?

PV: Although Cesc and Nasri are the likely names on the lips of Arsenal fans, I have a sneaky feeling that Alex Song will be the key to the encounter. If Lampard starts in all probability, the onus will be on the Cameroonian to deny him space to make one of his trademark inch-perfect passes. Lampard is not an instinctive player and needs time and space to weigh his options, so if Song can stick to him like Essien does to his marker, it will reduce some of Chelsea’s offensive threats. With Chelsea expected to turn up with a physical strategy, which has served them well in the previous encounters, Wenger can be certain to make his lads go rough on them as well. While the midfield battle, with Essien and Mikel Obi pitted against Song and Wilshere/Denilson, will be engaging, the match result hinges on how both teams handle the marauding runs of the full backs, particularly Sagna and Ashley Cole. The other key battle would inevitably be the Arsenal center backs against Didier Drogba, who seems to have an irresistible fascination for Arsenal’s goal.

PV: Good luck for the encounter. I hope the home team will end their 11-game hoodoo against Chelsea and Man United, and only the chant “Na na na na Samir Nasri………..” will be heard at the final whistle!