Chelsea vs Arsenal : The biggest game of the last five years for Arsenal is this Wednesday night. With a European trophy, a Champions League place, and the potential pride of London on the line, the Gunners face a must-win Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku, Azerbaijan.
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It really is a 50:50 game. Both teams have endured up-and-down seasons, with Chelsea just pipping a third-placed finish in the Premier League. Their head-to-head record is one-all, Chelsea squeezing out the first meeting before being well handled at the Emirates in the return fixture.
And the drama is only truncated because it will all come in a 90-minute match. Any mistake will be amplified that much more. And so will any absence. There are no remaining matches to claw back lost points. It is all on the line in a final. So the recent news that N’Golo Kante could miss the trip to Baku after twisting his knee in training is most welcome for the Arsenal faithful. Chelsea remain hopeful that he could recover in time, but the initial fears are that he will not be ready to feature.
Now, I never want to wish an injury on any player. As someone who has suffered many long-term injuries with longstanding repercussions, I understand the mental torture of not being able to play because your body will not let you know, no matter the level of competition.
That said, should Kante miss the final, it would unquestionably be a massive boost for Arsenal. Chelsea missing one of their best and most influential players is always helpful. And it is especially significant for one man in particular: Mesut Ozil.
In the presumed 3-5-2 set-up that Unai Emery will employ in contrast to the 4-3-3 that Maurizio Sarri has used all season, it was highly likely that Ozil and Kante would take up many of the same spaces on the pitch, even with Kante now playing a more advanced, box-to-box role from what he had been doing before Sarri’s arrival.
It is also not beyond the realms of possibility that Sarri may have asked Kante to man-mark Ozil. For all of his faults, the German is the man who makes the Arsenal tick. If you can shut him down, frustrate him, limit the space he enjoys and pressure him into running backwards and away from goal, you can completely disrupt the whole attacking structure and combinations. Kante is the ideal player to perform such a role. And now he will not be available.
His replacement will most likely be Ross Barkley, a far more attacking player than the French World Cup winner. A midfield trio of Barkley, Matteo Kovacic and Jorginho certainly lacks defensive legs, instincts and protection, which are vulnerabilities that Ozil might just be the best in the world at exploiting, when he is on his game.
Kante’s absence could free up Ozil to play his very best football. And in turn, the Arsenal attack might just come alive. It is difficult to say just how big this development is.