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London derby takes centre-stage

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FOOTBALL / Tottenham hosts United in another big match on Sunday

BIG BOOST:Theo Walcott ended months of speculation by signing a contract extension with Arsenal on Friday.— PHOTO: AFP
BIG BOOST:Theo Walcott ended months of speculation by signing a contract extension with Arsenal on Friday.— PHOTO: AFP

Arsene Wenger believes Arsenal can exploit the uncomfortable relationship between Rafael Benitez and Chelsea’s supporters when the Gunners head to Stamford Bridge for Sunday’s crucial London derby.

Chelsea interim boss Benitez, already a hate figure at the Bridge following his time with rival Liverpool, has been unable to win over his club’s fans since arriving as successor to the popular Roberto Di Matteo in November.

Their stormy relationship hit a new low on Wednesday when the Blues squandered a two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw against Southampton, a result that continued Chelsea’s miserable form at the Bridge this season.

Chelsea has won just one of its last seven home league matches. That sole success was an 8-0 win over Aston Villa under Benitez’s guidance, but the Spaniard has also overseen embarrassing defeats against QPR and Swansea.

In contrast, the Blues have chalked up six wins on the road during Benitez’s reign, a pattern that suggests the pressure of playing in the current toxic atmosphere at the Bridge is affecting Chelsea’s players.

And Wenger hopes Chelsea’s home sickness makes this the perfect time to travel to west London.

With Arsenal six points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, which hosts Manchester United on Sunday, and eight adrift of third-placed Chelsea, a victory would be a major boost to Wenger’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League.

“The confidence of the crowd in the team plays a big part, but let’s not hope on any weakness of Chelsea, let’s just focus on our strength,” Wenger said.

However, Benitez remains convinced he can win over the fans with a more positive run of results at home. He insists the negative atmosphere hasn’t distracted his players and instead blames Chelsea’s problems on the defensive approach of recent opponents.

“The atmosphere doesn’t affect the players. We are professionals and we concentrate on our job,” Benitez said. “If we win, I'm sure the fans will be happy.

“It's a question of the tactics of other teams, if they're deep or not.

Meanwhile, Benitez’s hopes of retaining the Chelsea job beyond the end of the season were seemingly handed a boost in midweek when Pep Guardiola, a long-time target for Blues owner Roman Abramovich, agreed to take charge at Bayern Munich.

Terry returns

Benitez’s cause could be helped on Sunday by the return of John Terry, who has not started a game since suffering knee ligament damage in November.

Terry came off the bench at Stoke last weekend and the Chelsea captain could start against Arsenal. — AFP

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