Unlike the past few seasons, this Chelsea Arsenal game has a whole new meaning this time around because unlike the past few seasons, Arsenal are still very much in the title race. The game will have a major say on who goes on to win the title.

Arsenal will make the short journey to West London to take on an in-form Chelsea at The Bridge. The Blues, although coming on the back of a defeat at Villa, are in great form both attacking and defensively having won all but one of their last 5 matches and conceding very few goals in the process. The Gunners, on the other hand, come in to this match on the back of a morale boosting North London derby win. They have also been in decent form off late having lost just once to Stoke in the League.

As is the tradition here at TheHardTackle, ahead of big matches in the Premier League we put two rival fans face-to-face for a rendezvous and more often than not, a bit of banter. Continuing that tradition, attacking the Shed End ( the end where the away fans sit at Stamford Bridge) will be Naveen Maliakkal and doing so at the Matthew Harding Stand End will be Chelsea fan Alok Kulkarni.

Being the host, Alok chose to attack first and this is how it went:

Alok: Do you still realistically feel Arsenal are in the title race? That performance against Stoke would indicate otherwise, according to me. However, having done the double against Spurs last weekend, is there still hope?

Naveen: Having done the treble you mean? Don’t forget the FA Cup match. I see your point about the Stoke match. That match and our terrible performances against Manchester United represent eight points dropped that will probably cost us the title in the end. However, titles are won by points, not necessarily performance (08-09 Liverpool and Manchester United fans nodding). In that case, we are starting at the same point Liverpool are, and Liverpool are deemed title contenders. Therefore, I think we are still in the title race. However, since 89 points is our maximum points total, and since it will probably take 85 or more points to win the title, Arsenal have little margin for error. I believe that Arsenal cannot drop more than two points in their next four fixtures. After that, Arsenal have five rather winnable fixtures to end the season. So the title challenge is still on, but Arsenal probably have to go on a run like the 97-98 team if they are to win the title. Getting Aaron Ramsey fit would not hurt either.

Alok: A lot of Arsenal fans have started to show a slight ‘dislike’ towards Wenger. Where do you stand on his position with the club?

Naveen: Fans need to ask themselves, “who would replace Arsene Wenger, if he left?” I do not think Arsene Wenger is below replacement level, to borrow a term from baseball (I do not think anyone believes that). In fact, I would consider Arsene Wenger to be one of the best managers in the world. Wenger wears multiple hats at Arsenal, much like Sir Alex Ferguson did at United. His breed of manager might die out forever when he retires from football, and United fans can tell you all about how hard it is to replace a manager like that. So given the caliber of manager we have to replace, who is actually available? If you told me Jurgen Klopp was willing to drop everything and come to Arsenal, then I would not be sad to see Wenger leave.

However, Klopp has signed a deal with Dortmund until 2018, and unlike Wenger, has had others play a large role in the transfer dealing at BvB. So despite his ability as a coach, we do not know his ability when it comes to all the other roles Wenger plays. There are still important question marks with the man I think is best suited for the job. Outside of him, I do not have any other managers who I think could take Arsenal to another level. This is why winning the FA Cup (or the league) is important this season. Another trophy without silverware combined with a negative reaction from the fans could incentivize Wenger to leave Arsenal and plunge the club into a world of uncertainty.

Alok: Over the past few seasons, Chelsea have had the upper hand in this fixture (apart from the RVP hattrick game). How do you see this game panning out?

Naveen: The 5-3, or “this is what happens when you play a high line with John Terry”. I am relatively optimistic for this match. The loss at Aston Villa combined with the proximity of City and Liverpool, along with Arsenal, to the top spot means that Chelsea probably need to grab all three points. That is how I see it. A draw does not help either team. The suspension of Willian takes away an individual attacking force, who could win some 1-on-1s. Given Oscar’s recent form/fatigue, Chelsea seem very dependent on Eden Hazard playing his “A” game in order to pose a consistent threat. Since Ramires is suspended as well, it takes a hatchet man and runner out of midfield. I could see Mourinho playing David Luiz next to Matic to provide another skilled player who can help Matic defend central midfield. When it comes to Arsenal, it seems the choice back 5 (Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Gibbs) are all fit. Due to that, I do not doubt Arsenal’s ability to keep a clean sheet or concede only one goal.

The concern is whether they can score more than one goal. I think it is a mistake to play Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta at the base of midfield if Chelsea play Matic and or Luiz. There are also issues in the attacking quartet. Here, the losses of Aaron Ramsey (who could have been in an advanced role or in central midfield, allowing Oxlade-Chamberlain to play a more advance role), Mesut Ozil, and Theo Walcott are felt. If I were to predict an attacking trio, from right to left, it would go Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, and Lukas Podolski. All three have question marks. When it comes to Rosicky, he can sometimes struggle playing back-to-back matches, even with a week off. Cazorla’s passing has been off in the past few games. While I think Olivier Giroud is a good center forward, he is the worst type of center forward to play against Chelsea. Matic, Terry, and Cahill are all skilled at dealing with balls in the air, nullifying any value Giroud could provide in the air. Given all of these factors, Arsenal are a side that Chelsea can defend well. So while I am relatively optimistic that Arsenal can win, I feel like it will take a moment of individual class (or an individual mistake) for one side to win. In that respect, Eden Hazard tips the balance in Chelsea’s favor.

Aaron Ramsey

Arsenal will miss the services of Ramsey

Alok: The general opinion seems to be that you guys need a world class striker to partner along with Giroud for you to be considered serious title contenders. Do you concur? In totally unrelated news, Torres might be available next season. Fancy a bid for him?

Naveen: Haha…no. Fernando Torres is not a player Arsenal should sign. I do not think Arsenal should buy a center forward to partner with Giroud. With the large quantity of midfield talent, the opportunity cost of fielding two center forwards is too high. If Arsenal can find a goal scorer to play in the attacking trio, or at the very least a player with an elite combination of athletic and technical ability (like Julian Draxler) who could allow others, including Giroud, to more easily score goals, that severely decreases the need to buy a center forward who is a clear upgrade to Giroud.

Instead, Arsenal could go after a younger prospect with a high ceiling (Michy Batshuayi) and relatively low price, another Giroud type (Mario Mandzukic), or an athletic but limited center forward. This might be the most likely route since there is a lack of upgrades over Giroud available. Edinson Cavani probably is not for sale at a price Arsenal could afford. I think Diego Costa probably ends up at Chelsea. Radamel Falcao, Luis Suarez, and Sergio Aguero are only leaving their clubs for Real Madrid, in my opinon. Karim Benzema is probably staying at Madrid, unless they purpose one of those three center forwards I listed. That leaves Mario Balotelli, who may leave AC Milan, but you have to wonder if he can ever mature. Though, given the structure, player leadership, and a manager like Arsene Wenger, the Emirates may be one of the few places where Balotelli can develop and live up to his massive potential. So while I would like to see Arsenal purchase a center forward who is a significant upgrade over Giroud (who may go back to France if you believe some rumors), it will be rather difficult and is the only way to upgrade Arsenal’s attack.

Alok: What is your opinion of Mourinho and where Chelsea are headed under him?

Naveen : He’s the modern Bela Guttmann in that he never stays at a place to long. I do not think he is a great tactician. I think that is an overrated aspect of him as a manager. I do think he has a good sense of strategy and knows how to train his players to get what he wants out of them. I think his true skill lies in motivation and getting players to buy into what he is saying. The one exception would be Real Madrid, but I feel like I have an explanation for that. Mourinho seems to excel when his club has the purpose of beating the established powers. At Porto, it was the established power in Europe in the Champions League. At Chelsea, it was toppling breaking the duopoly of Arsenal and Manchester United. At Inter Milan, it was taking the second team of Milan to success, both domestically and in Europe. The difference at Madrid is that Madrid are the establishment; they are The Empire.

Madrid are not underdogs; they do not see themselves as the Rebel Alliance. That mentality at the club, along with the politics of the club, made Mourinho’s normal plan of action inappropriate at Madrid. Where Chelsea are going with him comes down to two things: Mourinho’s ability to manage long term and Financial Fair Play. We have no idea how Mourinho manages a club in the long term. He has never had a situation where he has had to oversee the development of a squad, bleed youth players, develop young players into finished products, etc. over a five year period. Is Mourinho the right man to develop players like Romelu Lukaku, Nathaniel Chalobah, and Marco Van Ginkel.Mourinho’s traditional mode of operation is to spend to fix the holes in his side now, and then when new holes emerge, spend some more. That is a fine strategy when a team has the money to do it. However, it will be interesting to see how UEFA enforce Financial Fair Play on Chelsea.

And with that, the first half of this rendezvous came to a close. After some well thought out answers from Naveen, Alok now readies himself for the second half. This is how it went:

Naveen:  Before the loss to Aston Villa, I thought that Chelsea were clear favorites to win the title. Now, I am not so sure. How did you feel about Chelsea’s title chances before the loss to Villa and how do you feel about them now? Is this game against Arsenal a “must-win”?

Alok: Firstly, I think we were extremely unlucky against Villa. Not to sound like a cry baby, but the refereeing seemed a bit below par that day. Anyway, I do not think we have to worry too much about that defeat. It was a good performance and I hope it was nothing more than a blip. Secondly, I think Manchester City are still the title favourites, followed by us and then Arsenal. And lastly yes, every game from here is a must-win.  I know it is a bit cliched to say that, but given the relatively easy run-in we have till the end of the season, we HAVE to win all games to win the title.

Naveen: Eden Hazard has been remarkable this season and deserves consideration for Player of the Season. However, it seems that Chelsea struggle to create chances with any consistency if Eden Hazard isn’t at his best. Do think Chelsea are too reliant on Eden Hazard and if so, could this cost them the title?

Alok: Yes, you are party right in a way that he has been the most influential player this season for us. I, however, feel that Chelsea will do well without him too (if the time comes). As you probably know, we have a line of players as long as the distance between the Emirates and the Bridge when it comes to midfielders,waiting for the chance to replace Hazard. Oscar has been a bit quiet this season, Willian is finding form and Schurrle is a class player requiring a consistent run in the side – just to name a few. Also, if you see the past few seasons that we have had, we’ve had the most number of goalscorers on the sheet, indicating the un-reliability, if you will, on a particular player.

Naveen: Piggybacking off of that question, like Arsenal, Chelsea lack a world class center forward and probably have the worst group of center forwards of the eight teams left in the Champions League. Do you think Chelsea will sign a center forward who can significantly improve the squad? Who do you think they will sign. Who would you like to sign?

Alok: The simple answer to that question – yes! We do need a quality center forward who can lead the attack on his own, unlike the current crop of strikers we have. Torres, unfortunately, is nothing more than dead wood now at The Bridge, Eto’o is a good second choice striker to have and Ba is unlucky in the sense that he is a quality striker stuck at the wrong club. I, personally, would like a clear-out. For next season, I would love to see Diego Costa lead the line for us. He is a quality striker, in great form and is exactly what we need. He will also be a perfect foil for Lukaku – whom I desperately hope we retain. Also, Eto’o as a third option will be good to have. A fourth striker whom we can slowly blood in would be one of the youth players like Alex Kiwomya or Isiah Brown – who have been in great form for the under 21s.

Romelu Lukaku

Retaining Lukaku will be priority for Chelsea next season

Naveen: Chelsea have never been afraid to spend money. However, in this stint with Chelsea, Mourinho has a large number of young players either on the roster, in the youth set-up, or out on loan. Do you fear that Chelsea’s spending may block the development of such young players? More specifically, do you think Romelu Lukaku will leave Chelsea?

Alok: That is one of my and many fans’ major concerns. Once the on-loan players do come back, where do we fit them? And if we do not, will they grow dissatisfied and leave? Of all the players, as you rightly asked, Lukaku will be on top of everyone’s shopping list this summer. Chelsea will do well to retain him. I think Lukaku, personally, would like to stay at a big club like Chelsea and prove himself once and for all. According to me, he definitely has potential to fill the big boots of Drogba.

Naveen:  Since you asked me this question, I have to ask it as well. How do you see this match playing out?

Alok: I hope for a 4-0, but will be happy with a 1-0 too. :)

And with that, the conversation draws to a close. Here’s hoping that the game is, much like this conversation, an entertaining affair.