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ARSENAL
v
MANCHESTER UNITED

Emirates Stadium, London
May 1st, 2011, 1300 GMT

***

London will be the scene of the crime this weekend as Gunners take on Fergie’s Devils at the Emirates stadium. A duel that was billed as a potential title decider a fortnight ago has now turned into a game of relatively lesser significance. Still the game has a lot riding on it, for Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal side, this encounter provides an opportunity to salvage some pride against a hated rival as the title bid is by all counts beyond them. For Man United, a win would put them one vital step closer to their most cherished dream- a record breaking 19th league title. A draw might yet be enough, while a defeat could let Ancelotti’s Chelsea side back into the race especially if they win their London derby against a stuttering Spurs side.

The Ferguson-Wenger rivalry has been simmering for a while now. Although the golden oldies might not meet for a glass of wine, they surely have developed a sense of mutual respect. Had Arsene’s team maintained their form and stood a chance in the title race, the sanity of that mutual admiration would have gone through a rare test. For now both have bigger fish to fry, Wenger’s attentions must surely be occupied by his side’s dramatic fall from grace as the once menacing Gunners have gone off the boil dramatically. Sir Alex Ferguson, on the other hand, is on the brink of yet another milestone – another feather in his cap, but this one would surely rank as his best yet.

Arsenal have had yet another meltdown much to the suffering of their fans as although they have lost just one out of the last seventeen league games, they have won just one in their last seven which has left them from being favourites at one time to nine points behind the leaders with only four games to go. Moreover, they still have some work to do before they seal the third place with Manchester City hot on their heels. Arsene Wenger has admitted that his side has lost their ‘subconscious belief’ since their Carling Cup final loss to Birmingham, but he would be urging his team to play for pride and have a say in the title race – albeit in deciding it. But it will be a hard job for him to motivate his players as he goes into the game on the back off a terrible week that has seen his team pick just two points out of a possible nine.

Manchester United, on the other hand, go into the game after one of their best away performances in Europe as they dismantled Schalke to virtually seal their place in the Champions League final at Wembley. However, their focus would be totally on the league now with work still to be done to secure the title as a rejuvenated Chelsea look to pounce on the slightest slip-up by the Red Devils. Sir Alex would be keen for a victory that will all but secure the title as United would then require only four points from three games provided the Blues win all their games. However, it would be far from easy as United’s away form in the league has been nothing short of horrible which has seen them win only five games away from Old Trafford.

Team News and Tactical Brief

Arsenal

Abou Diaby is missing for the Gunners as he has failed to recover from the calf injury that kept him out against Bolton last week. However, Tomas Rosicky seems to have recovered from his illness and is expected to be a part of the game at some point. Thomas Vermaelen has also declared himself fit to return to first team action after playing the full ninety minutes against United reserves in midweek. However, it is unlikely that he will start in such a big game after being out for so long and hence could only find himself named as a substitute. Mannone and Fabianski are still out, but apart from that, Wenger has a full strength squad to pick his team from.

Diaby’s injury means that Wilshere and Song are definite to start the game as the two defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation deployed by Wenger. Song could be used to man-mark Wayne Rooney who has recently been employed by Sir Alex in a free role behind the striker – a move which has paid huge dividends in the past few weeks. Captain Fabregas would once again play the role of playmaker, pulling the strings from the midfield. Nasri would be alongside him and there would be a toss up between Arshavin and Walcott, but Arsenal manager is likely to go with the Russian as Walcott has often gone missing in the big games for the Gunners. In-form striker, Robin Van Persie would be once again leading the line for the home side. In defence, it would be a usual setup with Szczesny in goal and a back four of Clichy, Koscielny, Djourou and Sagna ahead of him. Walcott could be used as an impact sub later in the game as his pace could exploit the tiring United defence.

Probable Starting XI: Szczsney, Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy, Song, Wilshere, Nasri, Arshavin, Fabregas, Van Persie

football formations

Manchester United

Sir Alex has virtually a full squad to chose from – a luxury which he would very much relish going into the final few games of the season. League’s top scorer Dimitar Berbatov is fit for the game after missing the last two games with a groin problem. Darren Fletcher, like Vermaelen, played the full game in midweek against Arsenal reserves after coming back from a long lay-off due to a virus infection. But he is unlikely to be involved as Sir Alex has indicated that the Scotland captain would make his comeback in the return leg against Schalke at Old Trafford. Ryan Giggs is also not going to be involved as he is rested after playing the whole game in Germany in midweek. Co-veteran Paul Scholes is still suspended; the last match of his three-match ban received after the red card against Man City at Wembley. Other than that, Owen Hargreaves is the only one not being considered for the game.

Sir Alex is likely to go with the same 4-4-1-1 formation that has worked so well for him in the last few weeks. Interestingly, it was Arsenal against whom Sir Alex first went with this kind of formation when the Gunners went to Old Trafford earlier in the season for their FA Cup game. Since then, Rooney has been used in a withdrawn role by Sir Alex just behind Javier Hernandez. This would also mean that Berbatov would again be starting only on the bench. The midfield would have a different look to it than the last couple of games as Sir Alex would look to rotate his players once again. Anderson is likely to come back in the starting line-up alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield. Park, who has been a nemesis for Arsenal over the years, is also certain to start on the left hand side. On the right, Ferguson would chose between Nani and Valencia with the former likely to be preferred as he only came as a substitute in the last few minutes in midweek.

In defence, Ferdinand is likely to start his first league game since February and would be partnering Vidic in central defence. Evra would be taking up left back duties as usual while Fabio could again be chosen ahead of John O’ Shea as the Gunners provide a less areal threat compared to other teams. Van Der Sar would be in goal.

Probable Starting XI: Van Der Sar, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Nani, Anderson, Carrick, Park, Hernandez, Rooney

Key Match Facts

1) Arsenal have not defeated United since their win at the Emirates in late 2008 – a run on seven games.

2) The Gunners have scored just one goal (Robin Van Persie’s penalty against Liverpool) in their last three games at the Emirates.

3) United have averaged 8.6 points in the last four games of previous five seasons.

TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR

Robin Van Persie (Arsenal)

The Dutchman has been on a goal-scoring spree since his return from injury with 15 goals in his last 15 games, taking him to 19 goals for the season. When in full flow, Van Persie is hard to handle for any defence and once again he will test the United back four. The Arsenal striker is very much capable of doing the impossible with ease and could do the same on Sunday to United and dent their title charge.

TheHardTackle’s PREDICTION

Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United

It would be an entertaining game with both teams capable of playing attractive football. Arsenal will have lots of possession, but United would come away with a much-needed point to take the title race out of Chelsea’s hands.

TheHardTackle’s BLAST FROM THE PAST