London teams seek home wins to counter fan apathy
(AP Photo/Jon Super)
By STEVE DOUGLAS
AP Sports Writer
LONDON (AP) Chelsea and Arsenal look for home wins in different competitions this week to counter restlessness among fans that is hampering the London clubs' hunt for silverware this season.
Interim manager Rafa Benitez still hasn't been accepted by Chelsea supporters, who continue to express their discontent loud and clear during every match at Stamford Bridge.
Amid the hostility, the team has failed to score in four of its six home games under Benitez ahead of Wednesday's rescheduled Premier League match against Southampton, when a victory would keep Chelsea's slim title hopes alive.
"The next game, if we win, the crowd will be behind us again," Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech said.
Arsenal fans, meanwhile, remain unhappy about the direction the club is heading as it attempts to end a barren stretch of eight years, with manager Arsene Wenger acknowledging that nerves are getting to the players in matches at Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal hosts Swansea on Wednesday in one of 11 third-round replays in the FA Cup this week, which also includes Manchester United's home match against West Ham.
"We are a bit too nervous to play in a serene way at home, and that shows in the way we start the games," said Wenger, whose team was beaten 2-0 at home by Manchester City on Sunday after being reduced to 10 men after only nine minutes.
West Bromwich Albion is at home to Queens Park Rangers in an all-Premier League replay, while Fulham, Sunderland, Stoke and Wigan all look to avoid upsets against lower-league opposition.
Under Benitez, who was hired by Chelsea in November following the firing of Roberto Di Matteo, the European champions have won their last six matches across three competitions, most recently a 4-0 victory at Stoke.
At Stamford Bridge, it has been a different story.
True, Chelsea has beaten Aston Villa 8-0 in the league and FC Nordsjaelland 6-1 in the Champions league, but recent losses to QPR and Swansea has seen the team struggle to play with freedom as boos and jeers ring out toward Benitez and misfiring striker Fernando Torres in an increasingly toxic atmosphere.
Even chairman Bruce Buck was jeered when he came on the pitch before the 2-0 loss to Swansea in the first leg of the League Cup semifinals, with fans angry at the club's decision not to offer midfielder Frank Lampard a new contract.
Benitez believes it is opponents' tactics, as opposed to fan hostility, that is the reason behind Chelsea's struggles at home.
"The question is the approach of the other teams," Benitez said. "When we are away, they press high and you have more space. At home, they play deep and you cannot find the space."
A win against Southampton would move Chelsea 11 points behind Premier League leader Man United with 16 games to play. Man City would be just four points ahead of Benitez's team.
Benitez has to choose whether to recall Torres in place of Demba Ba, who has looked more dangerous up front since joining from Newcastle at the start of the month.
Swansea won 2-0 at Arsenal in the Premier League and has shown how hard the team is to beat under manager Michael Laudrup by drawing against United, Everton and Liverpool in recent weeks. Swansea is unbeaten is nearly a month.
In Michu, the Welsh side has one of the players of the season. The Spaniard has scored three times against Arsenal this season - twice in the league and once in the 2-2 draw in the first FA Cup match at Liberty Stadium on Jan. 6.
Arsenal's defensive fragility is worrying Wenger, who will view the FA Cup as his team's best chance of silverware this season, after the 2-0 loss to City.
"There are a lot of big, big fixtures coming up against good teams - big games," Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen said. "Against Swansea, I am confident the group will respond to this defeat (to City), and I'm confident we can get a result on Wednesday."
Arsenal is without midfielder Mikel Arteta for this match, and potentially the next three weeks, because of a calf strain.
Updated January 14, 2013