Things have not come easily for Arsenal in the early going, and now facing a short turnaround after a chaotic victory to open Europa League group play, the Gunners look to get into the thick of the Premier League race Sunday when they face Chelsea in a London derby at Stamford Bridge.
Arsenal's first adventure in the Europa League since 2000, back when it was known as the UEFA Cup, was a rollicking affair. Kickoff was delayed an hour due to the problems created by the unexpectedly large number of Cologne supporters who descended upon the Emirates, with an estimated 15,000 showing up while only 3,000 tickets were dispersed.
The match started off like a horror picture as keeper David Ospina was lobbed from 40 yards in the ninth minute by Jhon Cordoba after a poor clearance. Eventually, though, Arsenal (2-0-2) settled down and found an equaliser shortly after halftime by substitute Sead Kolasinac, whose left-footed volley screamed across the face of the goal and inside the right post.
Then it was wantaway striker Alexis Sanchez, a surprise inclusion into Arsene Wenger's starting XI given the compressed time between games, taking control of Arsenal's fortunes with a fabulous individual effort, curling a right-footed shot from the top of the box inside the right post for the go-ahead goal. Hector Bellerin added a late marker, and when the final whistle blew, there was palpable relief in north London as the Gunners came away with a 3-1 victory.
While the victory covers some blushes, it also raises questions about who is going to be available for this derby. Wenger fielded a fairly strong lineup Thursday night with first-line regulars Bellerin and Nacho Monreal playing the full 90 minutes on the back line with Per Mertesacker, who made his season debut as Arsenal started with a 3-4-3 that shifted to four in the back with the introduction of Kolasinac.
"I want to use both systems when it suits the team or when we need to do it," Wenger said. "Because we played for a long time in the back four, it is easy for me to switch from a back three to a back four."
Theo Walcott also made his first start of the season, while Petr Cech, Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka, Alexander Lacazette and Danny Welbeck all were given the night off. The player who may have gained the most was the left back Kolasinac, who has a goal and two assists in Arsenal's last four games across all competitions.
"Sead's been like that since he came in, in the first day in training and every session, he works hard, 100 percent," midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles told Arsenal Player. "He's a nightmare to play against! He's so strong physically, he's very clever and he reads the game very well. He's hard to play against but it makes you a better player, playing against him."
Chelsea (3-0-1) have regrouped from their season-opening shock loss to Burnley by winning four on the trot in all competitions. Their return to Champions League play Tuesday night could not have gone any better as the Blues routed Azerbaijan side Qarabag 6-0.
Five different players netted for Chelsea, who also got an own late goal to fatten the scoreline. Defender Davide Zappacosta and midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko opened their scoring accounts as the two are quickly settling into their roles for the reigning Premier League champions.
"He played a really good game but now he has to work to improve," manager Antonio Conte told Chelsea's official website about Zappacosta. "For sure he knew very well my style of football and my idea of football. For this reason I decided to start him. … He played well."
As for Bakayoko, Conte noted the France international is "improving his physical condition a lot," but added "he has to continue to improve and go better in our idea of football."
The win also marked another step forward for Eden Hazard, who played the final half-hour as a substitute. Conte did not commit to starting him for this match given how well fellow midfielders Pedro and Willian have played thus far, while late transfer arrival Danny Drinkwater is likely sidelined until after the next international break due to a calf injury.
"For sure he's improving," Conte said of Hazard. "Having this patience with him is paying off. He is very close to being totally fit. We have to continue in this way. I have to make the best decision for the team and the players, but he is improving a lot and is very close to being 100 percent fit."
Chelsea's back line will be bolstered by the return of captain Gary Cahill, who completed a three-match ban for his red card in the defeat to Burnley. Given that Chelsea finished their last two matches against Arsenal with 10 men, Conte dryly noted that he hopes "to finish with 11 players. Then, during the game, the best will win."
It was Arsenal's 3-0 home victory last season that spurred Conte to switch to his preferred three-man back line that sparked Chelsea to the title. The Blues ran rampant in the return match at Stamford Bridge, coasting 3-1 as Marcos Alonso set the tone in the 13th minute with a header before Hazard tore through the Gunners defence on a thunderous run early in the second half in which he shed Frances Coquelin at midfield and wrong-footed Laurent Koscielny in the box before beating Cech from close range.
"I felt that we gave them easy goals," Wenger told the team's official website. "I especially remember the second goal that Hazard scored where we were not strong enough in the challenge or in our individual defending. It will be interesting again because at Stamford Bridge, we have a good challenge. There is a mental challenge there that we want to get right."
Arsenal, though, would get some solace with a 2-1 victory at Wembley in the FA Cup final in May as Aaron Ramsey bagged the winner 11 minutes from time. The Gunners also kicked off the season by beating Chelsea on penalties in the Community Shield at Wembley.
Chelsea have won five in a row at home over Arsenal, outscoring them 15-2 in those victories. The Gunners' rout at home last season is their only win in the last 11 league meetings (1-3-7) between the teams.
"They beat us on the break and Chelsea will try to do the same on Sunday," Mertesacker said. "The way we got defeated there last year, we have to look very deep into that game to find our rhythm. We have found our rhythm against Chelsea at Wembley but that is different circumstances than at Stamford Bridge. We have to take that rhythm from Wembley and the way we played and the way we prepared those games. It is down to us."
Updated September 15, 2017