Arsenal’s title ambitions were all but ended with defeat to Bolton last week and with nothing but pride to play for, The Gunners could put real pressure on Manchester United at the top of the table with their game against closest rivals Chelsea to come next week.
At one point yesterday victory over Arsenal would’ve have all but sealed the Premier League title for United, but a combination of poor goalkeeping and sub-standard linesmen helped Chelsea move within three points of The Reds ahead of next Sunday’s clash at Old Trafford.
After a blip in form following the Champions League Quarter final where United were knocked out of the FA Cup and held to a goalless draw at Newcastle, Javier Hernandez’ late goal against Everton has once more kicked United on and preceded the team’s finest display of the season against Schalke.
That victory in Gelsenkirchen has almost given Sir Alex Ferguson the opportunity to rest players in the return leg in midweek with a view to keeping everyone fully-fit before the Chelsea game. While 2-0 flattered the Germans, United had the chance to take off Rooney, Hernandez and Park in preparation for today’s clash at The Emirates.
Top-scorer Dimitar Berbatov is fit and should be in the squad for the game but will be amongst the substitutes as the United manager will continue with the counter-attacking 4-5-1 formation that has given his team so much joy over Arsenal in the past few seasons.
The last time the teams met was back in March in the FA Cup Quarter final and Hernandez led the line with Rooney playing as the most advanced player of a central-midfield three and this could again be the front line United employ today. The game in March saw a makeshift-United team with seven defenders counter Arsenal sublimely, in much the same way that they’ve succeeded against Arsene Wenger’s men time and again in the past few years.
If Rooney is to play as the most advanced midfielder, chances are that he will be flanked by Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung. Nani will feel hard done by to be left out – especially considering The Emirates is where he played the game that saved his United career in January 2010, but Valencia’s ability to track back is what will see him selected over the Portuguese winger. Park will be included not just for his covering ability, but his excellent scoring record against Arsenal.
United’s tactic against Arsenal is simple but extremely effective; press them when they’re in United’s half with the most advanced midfielder – in this case Rooney, dropping back to avoid being outnumbered and when the ball is won the wingers will run on level with the striker to create a three-man attack line. Last-season at The Emirates Rooney played the “false-nine” role expertly and when he dropped deep was followed by Arsenal’s centre-backs, which created the space for wingers Park and Nani to exploit centrally.
Arsenal are due a result against United; their last victory over The Reds was back in November 2008 thanks to a Samir Nasri brace, and with the pressure somewhat lifted today, chances are that Arsenal will come out all guns blazing. Wenger’s men have only won one of their last seven games – and though five of them have been draws, the team who had the widely-regarded ‘easiest run-in of the title contenders’ have managed to play themselves out of contention for the umpteenth time.
Robin van Persie is in a superb run of form and he could provide Nemanja Vidic with a problem this afternoon. Vidic followed van Persie all over the pitch in the FA Cup game which created a space in United’s back-line that should really have been utilised better by Arsenal’s midfield runners. If this again happens United’s best chance of countering the threat from the in-form Dutchman is by Vidic passing him on to either a midfielder, or the full-back who occupies the wing in which he could drift to.
Victory today against a liberated Arsenal team would be indescribably significant for United if they’re to stay on track for the title with resurgent Chelsea still to come at Old Trafford. A Chelsea victory in M16 would take the West-Londoners to the League’s summit at The Reds expense, so to avoid “squeaky bum time” three-points today would be huge. Arsenal however will want to prove to their support that their season isn’t over yet, and a first victory over United in nearly three-years would be a big boost for their self-belief.
Referee: Chris Foy
Last five meetings:
12/03/2011 – United 2-0 Arsenal
13/12/2010 – United 1-0 Arsenal
31/01/2010 – Arsenal 1-3 United
29/08/2009 – United 2-1 Arsenal
16/05/2009 – United 0-0 Arsenal
1. van der Sar; 21. Rafael, 5. Ferdinand, 15. Vidic, 3. Evra; 16. Carrick, 8. Anderson, 25. Valencia, 13. Park, 10. Rooney; 14. Hernandez.