Game to watch – Chelsea vs Arsenal
There are two mindsets following damaging setback. The first is to try and shy away and pray for a couple of quiet, regulation victories against weaker opposition which allows belief to slowly be recouped before the next high-profile opponent comes along. That is the usual Arsenal path.
The second is to embrace an immediate crunch match as a chance to make amends for the setback. Puff out your chests, implore those around you to work three times harder and step into the next test resolving to make up for your previous flaws. That is not the usual Arsenal path.
Unfortunately, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger don’t have any choice. With a top-four place in doubt again and Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid all in the Europa League, the EFL Cup is Arsenal’s best hope of silverware or face-saving this season. After a summer during which Ivan Gazidis, Stan Kroenke and Wenger all talked up challenging for the title, Arsenal are left fighting for scraps in the competition that was their fourth priority.
Having drawn Barcelona in the Champions League, Chelsea too have little chance of triumph in their priority competitions this season. They drew a miserable match at Carrow Road on Saturday teatime and will be confident of making round four, but EFL Cup success matters to them too.
That only makes this tie all the more intriguing. Between 2010 and 2014, the League Cup went through a period where a few surprising names reached the final (Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Cardiff, Swansea, Bradford, Sunderland) as some of the Premier League’s elite barely bothered. Now the EFL Cup has become a season-saving competition, and is no longer the natural home for the untested. Manchester United were evidence of that last season, as were Liverpool the year before. Now Arsenal (and possibly even Chelsea) are in the same situation.
The EFL Cup also has the advantage of being played comparatively early in the football calendar. While the FA Cup spans the business end of the season when minds, eyes and legs are elsewhere, the League Cup allows for a quicker win. The lack of replays helps too.
Given the number of televised games between members of the top six, it’s easy to grow a little weary when they meet in other competitions. Yet the sheer significance of this tie to both teams, with elimination sold as crisis, will make it an enthralling watch. So too is seeing two top-six teams play each other in a two-legged tie. The last time this happened was Liverpool vs Manchester United in the Europa League in March 2016.
Player to watch – John Stones
It is hard to argue that Manchester City truly missed John Stones during his enforced injury absence, but at the start of a World Cup year he is the only central defender who you can guarantee will start England’s first group game in Russia if fit. City supporters will forgive me for the selfishness.
Still, there’s no doubting Stones’ importance at club level too. Nicolas Otamendi is a mistake volcano just waiting to erupt, Vincent Kompany’s leg muscles have the potential to make him feel sad at any moment and Eliaquim Mangala is playing ten times better than ever before in England and still isn’t quite good enough. Premier League teams may have struggled to exploit City’s defensive flaws, but Europe’s elite clubs quickly will.
Stones played 90 minutes for the first time since England’s 0-0 draw with Brazil on Saturday, and his individual error for Burnley’s goal demonstrates that match fitness is not simply about physical recovery but muscle memory and mental factors such as concentration and decision-making. After an eight-week lay-off, that will soon come back.
A League Cup semi-final first leg against Championship opposition gives Stones the perfect test. Manchester City should have too much for Bristol City, but Stones will be harried and hassled by forwards desperate to succeed against the Premier League champions elect. With Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, Stones will need to be back at full health.
Team to watch – Arsenal
One of the most infuriating aspects of Arsenal’s performance against Chelsea at the Emirates last week was just how good Wenger’s side were. The defence will always be suspect – and Alvaro Morata missed three one-one-one chances – but Arsenal were superb in possession. They regularly exposed Chelsea on the counter-attack and played with a rare intensity to win back the ball.
That particularly applies away from home, where Arsenal have been wretched. Every team expects to suffer a dip in performance on the road, but it is impossible to overstate just how bad Arsenal’s away games have been. Still, let’s try.
Firstly, the results. The list of teams Arsenal have beaten in all competitions in the last year away from home: Swansea, Southampton, Sutton United, Middlesbrough, Stoke, BATE Borisov, Red Star Belgrade, Everton, Burnley and Crystal Palace. Their record over that entire period reads: Played 30, Won 11, Drawn 4, Lost 15. That is the typical away record of a team that finishes sixth or seventh.
Yet it is the performances that are most alarming. Against Southampton, West Ham and West Brom in recent weeks, Arsenal looked like a team going through the motions, hoping that victory happened to them rather than looking to grab it. That has led to an apathy in Arsenal’s away support in which half of the match is spent wondering about the futility of the whole exercise.
Having watched a reserve team perform so abysmally at Nottingham Forest, Wenger must now urge his first team to improve upon their own away average at Stamford Bridge. The 0-0 draw at the same stadium in the league game was unusual in that Arsenal a) appeared to have a game plan and b) managed to stick to it. More of the same, please.
Manager to watch – Lee Johnson
Nine months ago, Bristol City came close to sacking Lee Johnson. The former midfielder had been handed a great deal of goodwill on taking over, but that had quickly run out. Johnson had won 18 of his 56 matches in charge, and by April 6 had won three games in 2017. The Bristol Post ran a story about banners appearing on local bridges urging chairman Steve Lansdown to sack his manager after a 5-0 defeat at Preston.
But Lansdown refused. Bristol City won their next game 3-1 at home to Wolves, taking 13 points from their final six league games to allay fears of relegation back to League One. With Johnson no longer in danger of losing his job, the manager set about improving his squad with the funds generated by selling Jonathan Kodjia the previous summer. Suddenly, the club were transformed. They sit third in the Championship.
Johnson was not shy about selling himself in the media before the EFL Cup quarter-final against Manchester United, perhaps using one too many cliches in his round of interviews and discussing spending hundreds of pounds on wine for Jose Mourinho. Had his side rolled over, it may have left a sour taste in the mouths of some supporters.
Yet they didn’t. In knocking out the holders, Johnson’s team demonstrated exactly the same resolve that led them out of trouble in April and May. The reward is a two-legged test against arguably the greatest manager in world football. Time to raid his daughter’s piggy bank one more time.
One-on-one battle to watch – Mesut Ozil vs Tiemoue Bakayoko
One of the excellent things about two high-profile clubs playing each other a number of times in quick succession is that it allows duels that were established during one contest to be carried over. There’s no doubt that the most intriguing tactical match-up at the Emirates last week was between Ozil and Bakayoko.
Ozil played a slightly altered role in that game. With Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka in central midfield again, Ozil was effectively given a free attacking role with licence to pop up on either wing and exploit the space that freedom afforded him, but also drop deep to pick up the ball. Ozil had more touches than any other player, and was comfortably Arsenal’s best attacking player. The concerns that he would down tools were misjudged.
The worry about Bakayoko’s performances won’t go away. His defenders praise the manner in which he carries the ball through midfield, but that is surely the least we should expect. When tasked with tracking Ozil and attempting to either win possession or hold him up and let Chelsea’s defence organise themselves appropriately, Bakayoko was regularly seen in a different postcode to the German.
Should that battle be continued at Stamford Bridge, Wenger will presumably look to use the counter-attack even more than last week. Given the recent performance level of Alexis Sanchez and Alex Iwobi, it might be Arsenal’s only hope.
European game to watch – Amiens vs Paris Saint-Germain
Amiens vs PSG is the best European game on this midweek, and it is also the only game. Still, when the Ligue 1 leaders – and let’s face it, champions – are scoring the sort of goals they managed against Stade Rennais at the weekend when winning 6-1 away from home, you’d be stupid not to have it on.
Unai Emery’s side might well have suffered their blip for the season. Early December brought defeats to Strasbourg in the league and Bayern Munich in the Champions League, albeit in a dead rubber game. Either side of those two matches, PSG have won 12 straight games and scored a farcical 48 goals in the process. It’s no longer about whether they win or lose, but whether they score four goals.
Against Stade Rennais in the cup, Emery left out Javier Pastore and Edinson Cavani after they returned late from the mid-season break. They watched as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria scored twice each. This is truly an embarrassment of riches. Watch as Emery’s team try to gorge on more goals.