Arsenal are confronted with the daunting task of getting all three points at Old Trafford as the business end of the season gets underway. Leicester City are currently running away with the title, and have a five-point lead at the top. As such, even a draw may not be good enough for Wenger’s men in Sunday’s blockbuster clash.
Manchester United and Louis van Gaal have been buoyed by their results this week. Although wins against League One side Shrewsbury Town and Danish league underdogs FC Midtjylland would usually be considered par for the course, the Red Devils’ underwhelming season has made these victories take on a more significant air.
Arsenal will approach this match as a must-win game if they want to keep their title bid alive. They cut down the five-point lead Leicester City had over them with a last-gasp victory in the last round of Premier League fixtures, but need to keep their run going against Manchester United. The Champions League defeat to Barcelona was a cruel wake up call, but it could serve to inspire Wenger’s men to play their best football at Old Trafford.
The professor looking to teach the philosopher another lesson
The first time the two managers faced off in the Premier League, Louis van Gaal emerged the winner. It seems that Arsene Wenger has since learnt how to deal with the Dutchman, recording two wins and a draw in the three games following that defeat. They have had contrasting fates this season too. While Manchester United seem to be a shadow of their former selves, Arsenal are surpassing expectations and mounting a serious title challenge.
The Red Devils have been showing some attacking intent in recent games, and Van Gaal will be looking at his attackers to provide something for the Red Devils to protect as they go into the game with a make-shift defence. The Dutchman has bemoaned his injury problems and goes into the match with a fourth-choice left-back, a third-choice right-back, and if Chris Smalling remains unavailable, a third-choice centre-back as well.
Marcus Rashford vs Petr Cech
The 18-year-old striker had a dream debut for Manchester United, scoring a brace at Old Trafford to star in a 5-1 defeat of FC Midtjylland in the Europa League. His timely runs and positioning helped the teenager poach a couple of goals from close range.
The injury to Anthony Martial means that Rashford could be thrown in the deep end once again. This time, however, poaching goals could be difficult as he comes up against one of the greatest goalkeepers in the Premier League. The 33-year-old is as experienced as they come, and rookie striker Rashford will have to be inch perfect with his shots to beat the quick reflexes of the Arsenal goalkeeper.
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Hector Bellerin vs Memphis Depay
Hector Bellerin is one of the best right-backs in the league right now and has done an excellent job of manning the Gunners’ right wing. Whether it is initiating attacks or tracking back to defend, the La Masia graduate has been one of Wenger’s biggest assets. The last time these two sides met, Bellerin came out on top in the battle with Manchester United winger Memphis Depay — so much so that Depay was demoted from the first team after that game.
However, the Red Devil’s number seven has taken full advantage of injury problems at the club to put in a few impressive performances for the first team. He was an ever-present threat for Manchester United in the Europa League game against Midtjylland, but it will be interesting to see if he can maintain that tempo and redeem himself against Arsenal. One thing he will have to do for that to happen is outplay Bellerin.
Mesut Ozil vs Morgan Schneiderlin
Another Manchester United player who had a great outing against Midtjylland was Frenchman Morgan Schneiderlin. The box-to-box midfielder excels in his role sitting in front of the defence and will be vital in providing an extra shield to an inexperienced defensive line.
The main goalscoring threat for Arsenal from midfield remains Mesut Ozil, who has had 17 assists this season and is close to breaking former Gunner Thierry Henry’s Premier League record of 20. The clash between Ozil and Schneiderlin in midfield will be a key battle that could make or break Arsenal’s attacking plays.
Louis van Gaal’s slow possession play has failed to pay significant dividends this season, but it is amazing what a few injections of pace can do to the side. The ‘backpass’ from central areas of the field needed to be eliminated, and it has not made its appearance felt in the last few Manchester United games. Possession play remains an important part of Van Gaal’s philosophy, but the onus will be on the midfield and attack because the Dutchman will very likely instruct his defenders to venture forward only when absolutely necessary.
Arsene Wenger lays a special emphasis on playing beautiful football, and his side have been trained to do just that. Incisive passing and confident link up play has been an essential part of Arsenal’s game plan and the team functions like a well-oiled unit. The Gunners will look to take control of the midfield, where the game may be won or lost as Manchester United try to contain the creative skills of Ozil and Sanchez.