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Arsenal need to set the tone in first of three pivotal Chelsea clashes

They say that familiarity breeds contempt. It's difficult, then, to envisage quite what the state of play will be between Arsenal and Chelsea by the end of January.

The two clubs are already bitter rivals, but three meetings in as many weeks is not something either set of fans will particularly relish. However, Arsene Wenger's men should not feel too daunted -- they have enjoyed some good results against Antonio Conte's side.

They'll think back with particular fondness to last season's FA Cup final. Conte looked primed to lead Chelsea to a domestic double, but an under-strength Arsenal with a makeshift defence produced a stunning performance and took home the trophy. It's a result that briefly reignited enough support for Wenger to enable the board to justify a two-year contract extension.

There have been other positive moments against Conte. Earlier in 2016-17, Arsenal dismantled Chelsea at the Emirates, recording a 3-0 victory over the team that would ultimately take the title. That result was actually the turning point in Chelsea's season -- at half-time in that match, Conte switched to the back three that would go on to be the tactical cornerstone of their championship run.

It would not have escaped the Italian that when Arsenal beat Chelsea at Wembley, it was by employing a near-identical system. When Wenger's back was against the wall, he borrowed a move right out of his rival's book.

Arsenal also used a back three at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, and to good effect -- they ground out an uncharacteristically gutsy 0-0. Wenger's teams are often derided for wilting under the spotlight in clashes against big teams. The recent fixtures against Chelsea, however, are proving a welcome exception.

Wenger needs that positive run to continue. Arsenal's last two big games saw them host Manchester United and Liverpool at the Emirates. They shipped three goals in each game, and were arguably a little fortunate to take the solitary point they did. With the battle for top four places so intense this season, the Gunners can not afford to lose any more ground.

Arsenal will face Chelsea three times over the next three weeks.

As Manchester City threaten to run away with the league, United's stumbling form has seen the upper echelons of the Premier League compress into a five-team battle for three remaining Champions League places. Technically, Burnley are also in the mix, but even the most ardent Clarets fan would presumably settle for Europa League contention.

Arsenal can't -- they absolutely have to get back into the Champions League. With the scale of the rebuilding job facing them this suffer, it's imperative they have elite European football to offer potential signings. That's why it's the first of these three matches with Chelsea -- the Premier League clash -- that's so important.

The Carabao Cup, frankly, is something of a distraction at this point. Arsenal are fighting on four fronts at the moment, and only two of those can lead them back to the promised land of Europe's top competition.

The likelihood is that Wenger priorities will be reflected in his selection. It will be Arsenal's second string who take on Chelsea in the cup, with opportunities expected for the likes of David Ospina, Rob Holding and Mohamed Elneny.

However, Wenger can not afford to throw the tie. A heavy defeat to a supposed competitor could be very damaging for morale at this crucial point in the season. It's a tricky balancing act for the Gunners boss, who must weigh his desire to remain active in every competition against Arsenal's increasingly hectic schedule.

That first match is key, as it will set the tone for the month -- perhaps indeed for 2018. Arsenal's tendency to buckle under pressure seems to stem from a deep-rooted psychological frailty. However, there is genuine cause for optimism against Chelsea.

If the Gunners can secure a series of good results against their London rivals, it could prove to a pivotal period of the season.

James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.


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