28 October 2014

Can Chelsea match the Invincibles?

We may only be nine matches into the season, and there are still 29 more fixtures left, but Chelsea's form to date already has tongues wagging and Gooners worrying that another Invincibles season is in the making. After all, they're undefeated, having won at Goodison Park, drawn at the Etihad and Old Trafford, and—sigh—defeated us at Stamford Bridge. In short order, they've escaped many of their toughest fixtures already, at least if we consider hostile territory and high stakes. The way things have gone so far, trips to Anfield and White Hart Lane, even to the Emirates, don't look all that daunting. not to a squad that has smashed home 24 goals while conceding just nine en route to claiming 23 of 27 points on offer. For those inclined to worry, Chelsea now sport a record identical to the Invincibles' to this point: 7W, 2D, 0L, but with a superior goal differential of +23 to the Invincibles' +11. All signs seem to point, therefore, to Chelsea shouldering us aside as kings of the Prem. What other conclusion is there other than to admit that Chelsea will join us (and Preston) in achieving invincibility?

We're all familiar with Mourinho's recipe: play stubborn, obstinate defense against top-of-the-table teams in order to achieve a draw or nick the occasional win while lording it ov er those mid-table or lower. Yes, occasionally, the flood-gates open but such exceptions prove the rule rather than refute it. To that recipe Mourinho has added the frightful scoring power of the Costa-Fabregas axis. He's no longer cruelly shackled to the anemic misfirings offered by Torres or Mata, Hazard or Oscar, Lampard or Schürrle or Eto'o, after all, and can finally hope to simply outscore opponents. How could he possibly be expected to win the Prem, much less go undefeated, with the likes of those sorry sots? Now that he has his ducks in a row (read: the finest squad money can buy), it's only logical to assume that he'll ride this little horse of his all the way across the finish line. 

Let's face facts: we at Arsenal are all but powerless to watch it happen. We missed our first chance at stopping the juggernaut when we lost 0-2. We have only one other chance at denying them membership in our rather exclusive club, when Chelsea come to the Emirates. 25 April 2014. The 34th match of a 38-match season. Mark the date. It could be Mourinho's Waterloo.

However, between then and now, there's a great deal of football to be played, and a trip to St. Mary's Satridum or Britannia or KC Stadium might be more fraught with peril than a trip to the Emirates or Goodison Park, not to mention White Hart Lane. The potential flaw with Mourinho's recipe, as it was last season, is that they're vulnerable to shock-losses to "lesser" clubs. In the 2013-14 campaign, Chelsea lost at Goodison Park (when Everton were still seen as enterprising rather than threatening), St. James's Park, Britannia Stadium, Villa Park, and Selhurst. Newcastle, Stoke, Aston Villa, and Crystal Palace might not inspire fear, but woe betide those who travel there unprepared. 

On a parallel note, can Chelsea's squad really be expected to approach these and other fixtures with the same intensity that they'll need for Champions League fixtures? Would a few players look past West Brom's visit to save energy for a trip to a vital clash with Schalke 04? Looking further down the road, let's assume that Chelsea advance to the round of 16. How much energy could a weary Chelsea summon for trips to face West Ham or Leicester when they might face off against the likes of Barcelona, Dortmund, or PSG? Should Chelsea get through to the Champions League quarter-finals, they'd have to set some priorities: pursue Champions League glory or the Prem title. Yes, they have the depth to pursue both, but they have to host Man U on 18 April and come to the Emirates 25 April—the Champions League quarter-final first leg would precede the visit from Man U, and the second leg will fall squarely between the matches against Man U and Arsenal.

Assuming that Chelsea don't slip up on any banana-peels between now and 25 April, can you imagine the intensity of that clash? Chelsea. At the Emirates. A 13th clash with Mourinho (unless an FA Cup fixture intervenes). An Invincible season on the line. Should it come to that, all strategic or tactical considerations will go out the window.

Should we fail to defend Helm's Deep against the unholy onslaught, all of us, including Mourinho and his mindless minions, will know that another invincible season will carry with it a heavy black mark, perhaps not as heavy as those that attend the Tour de France wins of Lance Armstrong or Alberto Contador, or the home-run records of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, or Barry Bonds. Should it come to the unimaginable—an Invincible season for Chelsea with Fabregas at its midst—all of us will know it was bought and not earned to the same degree as the other achievements referenced here.

Records are made to be broken. So it will be with that Invincibles season. Someday, some squad will find a way to replicate the record. Heck, they might even surpass it by virtue of a superior goal-differential or with fewer draws. None of that matters. In the modern era, in a 38-match Prem season, only Arenal can claim to be the first to have achieved what was previously unimaginable. We made it real. We made it realistic. Anyone else who replicates that is a cheap forgery.

Welcome, Chelse to our sloppy seconds, Cole couldn't quite deliver them to you, but perhaps Fabregas can. If that day should come, well, we'll raise a toast. Should you enjoy the fruits of these labors, we can tell you all about how it felt to be the first to achieve the feat. Perhaps you can bask in the reflected glory, much as the moon does in the rays of the sun...