For a club which has been trying lately to make friends, the final top echelon game in the English domestic season has delivered a particularly spicy challenge for Chelsea FC. Just as it did last year, 2,500 miles away from London in Baku, against the same opponents.
The dissonance between Chelsea and Arsenal is complicated and often difficult to understand. It is muddied, also, by the fact that the Blues choose not just one, but two, of their greatest rivalries from postcodes in North London just four miles apart. The N17 domain of Tottenham’s white walkers and the N5 lair of “The” Arsenal are two sides of the same dark coin to Stamford Bridge.
And that deployment of the definite article by Gooners also stokes what is perceived in West London as an unbridled sense of entitlement which outweighs the merits of the ancient Asian philosophy “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
Using “The” before the club name speaks to the belief that there is an “Arsenal Way” where elegiac football is played in Corinthian fashion with its lodestone co-located beneath a bust of Herbert Chapman and the marble halls of what was once Highbury Stadium, now luxury flats (€1million for two beds and two bathrooms - better value for money than Pepe).
Nowhere is this misplaced sense of divine right more regularly displayed than on Arsenal Fan TV (“For the fans by the fans”) which is one of the most unintentionally funny programmes to be found on the Internet.
Here was the platform where supporters vented their spleen on Arsène Wenger week after week while rivals, foreseeing the outcome, hugged themselves with glee. Wenger went to be replaced by ... Unai Emery. Well done. That went well then. Wenger finished fourth. Arteta finishes eighth. Result!
Many might imagine that the schism between these teams is relatively modern and rooted in the acrimony between José Mourinho and Wenger in an era heralded by the descriptive powers of Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein who memorably said in 2003: "Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us."
While it is true that the arrival of lavish wealth into the Premier League challenged the hegemony of Arsenal in London and broke the duopoly which existed with Manchester United, there are Chelsea supporters with longer memories.
Some point to frustrating FA Cup semi-final defeats (both after replays and both at White Hart Lane in 1950 and 1952) which consigned Chelsea to an 18-year wait before they lifted the FA Cup, 2020 being, for those with a taste for portents, the 50th anniversary of that iconic and bone-shuddering battle against Leeds.
Even longer memories dwell darkly on a post-war episode where Arsenal attempted to tap up Chelsea’s England centre-forward Tommy Lawton, the greatest striker of his generation. Arsenal, who have always been used to throwing money at players, unsettled Lawton to the extent that Chelsea sold him to Third Division South team Notts County for a British record fee rather than see him move across London.
There has always been a trading link and talent exchange between north and west London: George Graham and Tommy Baldwin; Alan Hudson; John Hollins; Colin Pates; William Gallas; Petit and Anelka; Cech and David Luiz; Cesc Fàbregas (he it was whose complaint initiated the celery ban at Stamford Bridge after being hit by a lump of the vegetable in what became known as the Snarling Cup Final in 2007. Astonishingly he was forgiven by Blues fans who cherished his appearances for them).
This two-way traffic may increase further post season with the reliable Willian fancying a spell in red and white. Chelsea supporters would suck this up because the alternative, a move to Tottenham, would spoil one of their favourite terrace songs which starts: “The shit from Spurs, they bought his flight” and commemorates the club’s 2013 hijacking of a deal between the Brazilian and André Villas-Boas to take the playmaker to White Hart Lane.
Arsenal have provided Stamford Bridge with four managers ― Leslie Knighton, Ted Drake (who oversaw Chelsea’s first ever league championship), Tommy Docherty, a prime mover in modernising the Chelsea image, and Emma Hayes, the impressive current boss of Chelsea Women.
Despite these connections, never have the levels of sanctimony been more hysterically exceeded than in the arguments surrounding the move of Ashley Cole in 2006. Cole is much beloved at Chelsea and hugely admired for the peerless quality of his left-back play while Arsenal fans overwhelmingly curl their lips at a player whose departure left a reservoir of bile, a supply of fake £20 notes, and the epithet “Cashley” which lasts to this day. He remains hounded by the red-top tabloids despite his attempts to build his coaching credentials and assist young players.
Much of the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with Arsenal’s supporter base who have always regarded their club as part of the aristocracy of European football. Chelsea, in their minds, are arrivistes whose proper place in the world is the tradesman’s entrance.
Worse than this for them is the nauseous feeling that the rise of Chelsea is all their fault. Had Jens Lehmann not deflected a 30-yard-shot from Claude Makelele (Makelele, think on that) into the path of Frank Lampard there would have been no Champions League quarter-final equaliser on April 6, 2004 and no tearful Claudio Ranieri celebration by full time.
In this alternative universe the “Invincibles” would have gone on to beat Monaco in the semis and overcome Porto in the final. Mourinho would not have appeared in SW6 trailing clouds of glory. There would have been no “specialist in failure” and “voyeur with a telescope” cruelties. No need for Philip Senderos to undergo PDSD (Post Drogba Stress Disorder) counselling; no 6-0 humiliation for the 1,000th Wenger game and no “we’re the only team in London to win the European Cup” song.
Instead Mourinho arrived with whatever the Portuguese is for “let’s knock them off their perch” and Premier League founding father David Dein, himself a divisive figure among Stamford Bridge loyalists for a perceived influence during the club’s turbulent ground ownership troubles of four decades ago, sold his interests to Alisher Usmanov’s investment vehicle Red and White Holdings before resigning from the club entirely in 2008.
The decline in Arsenal’s dominance can be traced back to this period and the eventual full takeover of Stan Kroenke.
While Chelsea fans have been able to sublimate searing memories of Kanu’s hat-trick; Nigel Winterburn screamers; Ray Parlour and Ian Wright with glorious moments of their own, they will also be reflecting on the consistent support of a Russian oligarch.
As they throng the virtual Wembley Way on Saturday night the internal rhyme will go something like this: “Woolwich Arsenal, Piers Morgan, Frankie Dettori, Gillespie Road Tube station, Osama Bin Laden, Denis Compton, the Arsenal Stadium Mystery, Nick Hornby, the North Bank, the Hill-Woods, Chips Keswick, Big Raddy, Charlie George, Prince Harry, the Clock End, those awful Redcurrant shirts, Jay Z, Pink Floyd, Mick Jagger, Spike Lee, Idris Elba, Jeremy Corbyn, Claude, and Troopz . . . your boys took a hell of a beating.”
Or so they hope.