Chelsea meet Arsenal for the second time this season on Monday after beating them 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in early October, a game which cemented Chelsea's place as Premier League leaders and easy favourites to reclaim the title. The situation is rather different this time around. Thanks to an awful run of form that has stretched the entire length of November and most of October, Carlo Ancelotti's Blues find themselves in fourth place, behind Arsenal and only just ahead of Tottenham Hotspur in the London mini-league. Overall leaders Manchester United are six points ahead of the Blues (their game in hand was a 2-0 home win over Sunderland earlier today), and Chelsea find themselves faced with the unpalatable situation of needing to win at the Emirates to keep the gap between themselves and United reasonably close.
And wining at Arsenal, despite the relative ease with which it has been achieved over the past few seasons, is not a foregone conclusion. My belief is that the Gunners are a slightly flawed team thanks to what appears to be a certain amount of tactical inflexibility on Arsene Wenger's part, but that doesn't preclude them from being an excellent team as well. At the Emirates they present a formidable challenge, and Chelsea haven't played at the level required to beat Arsenal at home consistently as of late. It'll be interesting.
Fortunately, there's good news for the defending champions. After making a ten-minute cameo against Tottenham two weeks ago, Frank Lampard is back and pulling the strings in Chelsea's previously-depleted midfield. The 15-day rest between the Spurs match and this one (thanks to the home game against Manchester United being postponed) will also have helped several members of the squad return to full fitness, most notably Didier Drogba, Arsenal-terroriser par excellance. If Drogba and Lampard are their usual selves, Chelsea have an excellent chance at coming away with an important win.
On the Arsenal side, their big guns will also be in evidence. The front line of Andrei Arshavin, Robin van Persie, and Samir Nasri is frankly terrifying, and although most of the focus will be on van Persie, Nasri is the key. The Frenchman is having a brilliant season so far and might be one of the most dangerous right-sided attackers in all of Europe. The battle between him and Ashley Cole will be interesting - will his threat keep the left-back shackled in defence, or will Nasri's tendency to switch off on defence provide space for Cole to operate?
Arsenal's midfield is also interesting, in that it's almost a perfect inversion of Chelsea's. Wenger deploys his midfield three in a 2-1 double band, but rather than acting as a double pivot, the Alex Song-Jack Wilshere tandem are often free to go wherever they like. This appears to be by design, but has led to some problems in Arsenal's defence when Song finds himself too high up the pitch and exposing his back line. Michael Essien and Frank Lampard will look to exploit this indiscipline while John Obi Mikel tries to keep captain Cesc Fabregas under control.
Of course, there's the crucial battle between Drogba and Arsenal's centre-halves to be had as well. With Thomas Vermaelen still out with a long-term Achilles problem, Arsenal must pick two from Laurent Koscielny, Sebastian Squillaci, and Johan Djourou to contain the Ivorian. Although Koscielny and Squillaci have been Wenger's first choice pairing, Ted at our excellent Arsenal blog The Short Fuse notes that Djourou's aerial ability makes him an interesting possibility here.
All in all, this really does hinge on whether the stars from both teams perform or not. If Lampard, Essien, and Mikel dominate their counterparts in midfield, Chelsea will stroll to a win - but if Fabregas and Wilshere shine, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will be overwhelmed. Contain Drogba and Arsenal give themselves a good shot at victory, but failing to do so could cost them very dear.
The match is extremely finely poised, and clearly could go either way, but I'm being optimistic today - let's go with Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal. Again.