Arsenal-Manchester United Preview
In a season full of crossroads, Arsenal find themselves at yet another one Sunday at Old Trafford, where they look to regroup from a pair of poor results against a Manchester United side well-versed in the urgency of such matches.
The Gunners (15-6-5) are third in the table on 51 points, trailing Tottenham Hotspur on goal difference and two points back of Leicester City. Yet once more, Arsenal enter a crunch contest lacking momentum after Tuesday's 2-0 setback at home to Barcelona in their first-leg round of 16 Champions League tie. That followed a scoreless home draw with Championship side Hull City in the FA Cup on Feb. 20, which resulted in a fifth-round replay to be played at the KC Stadium on March 8.
Though manager Arsene Wenger could chalk up the Hull draw to the lack of finishing by a largely overturned starting XI ahead of facing the Catalan side, none of his players escaped his wrath following Tuesday's defeat. It was made all the more frustrating that 70 minutes of dogged, counterattacking play came undone by two moments of madness from a defence caught out of position and Mathieu Flamini, whose challenge less than a minute after entering for Francis Coquelin resulted in a penalty.
Those moments 12 minutes apart resulted in goals by Lionel Messi, which have given Barca a near-unassailable lead for the second leg at the Camp Nou with the Gunners teetering on elimination at this point of the Champions League for the sixth straight year.
The unraveling prompted the "Same old Arsenal" cries from the skeptics and pundits as Wenger tries to add something besides an FA Cup or Community Shield title to the London side's trophy cabinet.
"Once again like Monaco, exactly the same thing happened. We were caught in exactly the same way," Wenger said. "I'm disappointed because we put a lot of energy into this game. It's a bit disappointing to give them the goals that we did, especially the first goal.
"They are better than us, everybody knows that, but I think we could've won the game tonight if we kept discipline until the end."
Wenger has cooled off some ahead of this crunch encounter, perhaps because he recognises its importance to Arsenal's title hopes but also because Manchester United remain cherished rivals despite their uneven play all season.
"Yes (it still has an aura) because Manchester United are a big club, Old Trafford is a special place and I believe for every club it remains a special fixture," he told the team's official website Friday. "We are in a strong position in the league, that's for sure, but there's still a long way to go.
"Winning at Old Trafford in 1998 put us on a good run, but the second time (in 2002) we knew that if we won there we would become champions. It was a decisive game, which is the case again on Sunday."
Arsenal will have to make do without Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who suffered a knee injury Tuesday in a heavy collision with Javier Mascherano and could be sidelined two months. That could put ex-United striker Danny Welbeck in line for his first start since returning from a knee injury, but Wenger hedged on that Friday, saying, "we still have to be cautious with him. He is still in the squad and he is not completely over his knee problem."
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal would gladly trade training room lists with his counterpart as the Red Devils lack first-choice personnel at nearly every position due to injury. The now-weekly referendum on the Dutchman's job may be on the uptick, though not without some fraught moments Thursday when they swept aside pesky Danish side Midtjylland 5-1 at Old Trafford to advance 6-3 on aggregate to a round of 16 Europa League tie versus Liverpool.
United trailed 3-1 on aggregate after conceding the match's first goal, but 18-year-old Marcus Rashford rescued them with a second-half brace in his senior team debut before Ander Herrera and Memphis fattened the scoreline with late strikes.
"He was unbelievable," van Gaal said of Rashford, a late addition to the starting lineup after Anthony Martial was injured during warmups. "It was a great performance and I think the fans will have enjoyed our attacking football."
Memphis deserved his goal after tormenting the right side of Midtjylland's defence the entire evening. It's the breakout performance Manchester United (11-8-7) sorely needed from the young winger, and one they hope he can duplicate against a higher-calibre opponent.
"You need these kind of matches, and he played fantastic," the manager told United's official website. "He can play fantastic so maybe it's a turning point. I hope it is, with all my heart, but we have to wait and see. Arsenal is another level."
Yet all these good feelings from this victory still fail to overshadow United's tenuous hold on fifth place in the table. They are one point ahead of both hard-charging Southampton and confident West Ham United - the Red Devils' FA Cup quarterfinal opponents next month - for the Europa League spot next season.
And given the six-point gap Manchester United must erase for the final Champions League spot, their current Europa League quest may be the only road available back into Europe's elite club competition.
Martial is likely to be held out of this match due to his hamstring injury, and defender Chris Smalling will be sidelined for a second straight contest. It is uncertain if keeper David De Gea will miss a fourth straight match across all competitions. Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini are all out with longer-term injuries.
Arsenal are seeking their first league double over Manchester United since the 2006-07 season after running out 3-0 winners in the reverse fixture in October. Alexis Sanchez had a brace around Mesut Ozil's goal inside the first 19 minutes, with Theo Walcott notching two assists.
The Gunners have won just once in their last 12 trips to Old Trafford (1-2-9), a 2-1 victory in last year's FA Cup quarterfinals, and they're 1-3-9 in their last 13 league matches at the Theatre of Dreams.