Antonio Conte's side head to the Emirates aiming to book a place in the final knowing three of Chelsea's seven red cards in the past eight months have come against Arsene Wenger's side
League Cup semi-final: Arsenal bring out the red in Chelsea
The conspiracy theorists – and there are always a few around Chelsea – have noticed a pattern. A transfer window stands ajar and suddenly the club’s resources are stretched because of a glut of suspensions. And manager Antonio Conte scratches his head and wonders aloud about the depth of his squad.
Absurd, or course, to imagine that Chelsea’s players would put themselves at disciplinary risk to make a point, but the champions of England go into the second leg of their League cup semi-final at Arsenal on Wednesday fresh from a glut of dismissals rather like the rash of red cards they suffered last August, when Conte was publicly gloomy about his squad’s strength in depth.
Chelsea are closing in on significant transfer business with a week left of the winter window, and relieved that the latest offenders in a curiously inflamed season have served their bans. Pedro and Alvaro Morata, both dismissed in the FA Cup skirmish with Norwich City, are back and available.
Chelsea won the Premier League in 2016/17 without a single red card throughout their campaign. That record contributed to the praise showered on Conte, in his first season in English football. He had, it was widely purred, helped a club who had fallen into chaotic catfighting under Jose Mourinho in the previous campaign become more "likeable". The sending-off of Victor Moses in the FA Cup final defeat, to Arsenal, slightly tarnished the image; yet when the summer heralded the departures of a couple of fabled warriors, John Terry and Diego Costa – admired footballers, but blood-and-thunder types – there would have been one or two referees who imagined Stamford Bridge might become an easier place to operate.
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Apparently not. Pedro, of the benevolent face and self-effacing demeanour, was sent off against Arsenal in the Community Shield in August and has now crammed his entire career stock of red cards in senior football into the last five months of a distinguished decade at the summit of the club game. He was sent off again against Norwich as the evening’s contagion of perceived diving offences spread suddenly. Pedro was one of three – Morata and Willian the others – booked for simulation, with Morata receiving his subsequent second caution for his protests.
Conte was meanwhile protesting long into that night about the Willian decision, and the failure to use VAR when it might have been appropriate. The gradual introduction of VAR across the top level of the game – it has been used only in some cup matches in England this season – will in time alter the landscape, although it is not a panacea: television evidence, while often illuminating, is still there to be interpreted. And VAR would probably not have spared Chelsea the glut of red cards they received at the start of the season, two in their opening Premier League game, a loss at home to Burnley; then David Luiz’s against Arsenal in September.
Arsenal certainly seem to bring out the crimson in Conte’s Chelsea. Three of their seven red cards in the last eight months left them a man short against these opponents, rivals as challenging as any Conte has come across in his year and a half in English football. The first leg of this semi-final finished goalless, just as the league fixture at Stamford Bridge did earlier in this season. A thrilling 2-2 Premier League draw at the Emirates began 2018.
And if any manager understands the frustrations of habitual dismissals, it would be Arsene Wenger. Time was that, he, like Conte, was praised for the refreshing tactical imagination and rigour he had brought to the Premier League, and also criticised for the bad discipline of his players. Wenger, like Conte, won Arsenal the title in his first full season as a manager in England; in the season his Arsenal then defended that first title – 1998/99 – they had picked up seven red cards by the last week of January.
Wenger has not mellowed a great deal in his relationships with officialdom, on the evidence of the report made by referee Mike Dean following Arsenal’s match at West Bromwich Albion on New Year’s Eve. The manager’s abusive remarks earned him a touchline ban. A few days later Wenger, incensed by a penalty awarded in Chelsea’s favour, deplored "bad decisions".
“I don’t want to start,” he continued. But start he did. “I don’t want to start because it gets me frustrated and upset. I’d like to talk about football and not referees.”
He may get his way, but then this is a semi-final, highly charged, it is another of VAR’s introductory nights, and it is a London derby in the competition that may represent the best chance of a trophy for either club.