EPL Match of the Week: Man United v Arsenal

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Arsenal travel to Manchester United on Sunday in what is an intriguing battle, and FOX Sports presenter Edward Russell has run the rule over the contest…

Whilst the intensity of the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal may have waned in recent years since the glory days of Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, and the infamous “Battle of the Buffet”, this match could prove to be hugely important in the futures of both clubs.

Following a tepid 0-0 draw to Hull City in the FA Cup and a demoralising 2-0 defeat at home to Barcelona in the Champions League, Arsenal will shift their attentions back to the Premier League, where they will be looking to get their title challenge back on track.

It may have only been a fortnight ago, but it already seems an age since Danny Welbeck’s last-minute header against Leicester sent the Emirates faithful into rapture. Against Barcelona, the Gunners were the better team for the majority of the game, but lacked the killer strike to take advantage of their ascendency, and the Catalans stole a goal on the break and from then on in there would only be one winner.

Former United striker Welbeck may possibly get the nod up front for this one, and he’ll need to be a lot more ruthless in front of goal than his counterparts were in midweek if the north London side are to take anything away from Old Trafford.

The Gunners desperately need three points from this game if they are to achieve anything from this season, otherwise there is the distinct possibility that within the course of a month they could have gone from fighting for three trophies to suddenly being out of contention in all competitions.

Manchester United will be on a rare high following their comfortable win at Shrewsbury in the FA Cup, and an even more resounding 5-1 win against FC Midtjylland. However, as the English press will continue to have you believe, Louis Van Gaal is only ever one defeat away from the sack, and a loss at home to Arsenal could well be the final nail in his rickety coffin.

The Red Devils will have had one less day of preparation than Wenger’s side due to their aforementioned Thursday night Europa League tie, but sceptics could well argue that Arsenal’s exertions against the best team in the world far outweigh that required against a side third in the Danish Superliga.

Nevertheless, United are already down to the bare bones with a squad missing regular starters David de Gea, Wayne Rooney, and Chris Smalling on top of a whole host of longer term injuries, and playing a second game in the space of 72 hours will no doubt be a strain, particularly to their already depleted defence.

Arsenal have had a number of fitness boosts in recent weeks, with the likes of Francis Coquelin and the aforementioned Welbeck returning from injury, but they will similarly be worryingly short in defence.

With third choice centre-back Gabriel facing a late fitness test over a hamstring injury, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker will likely line up together for the third time in eight days. Entering his twilight years though, Mertesacker’s endurance has become somewhat of an issue, and United will be hoping that he lacks the stamina to cope with the pace of their speedy forwards Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay. Indeed, that is if Martial even makes it into the matchday squad, having been withdrawn from their Europa League clash with a tight hamstring.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be out of contention after leaving the Emirates on Wednesday night on crutches, and so Theo Walcott will most likely be charged with supplying the pace on the right wing. Walcott will be looking to atone for his rather absent appearance against Barcelona, and could well make the difference, especially if the young Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is charged with keeping him quiet.

On the other side of the pitch, the equally inexperienced Guillermo Varela will have a similarly tough time up against Alexis Sanchez, who will be desperate to regain some semblance of form since returning from injury.

When the two teams met in August at the Emirates, Arsenal ran away 3-0 winners, but could easily have won it by a much greater margin if they didn’t choose to sit back after their initial 20-minute goal flurry.

That victory was against as full a strength side as Van Gaal has been able to field all season, so the Dutchman has reason to be concerned that Wenger’s side could leave Old Trafford with all three points for the first time in the league in a decade.

However, if United are able to come away from the game with the three points, then this could prove a watershed moment for the team. With all the talk of their poor performances this season, they still only sit six points off the top four, and with rather winnable games against Watford, West Brom and Crystal Palace up next, the hugely important Manchester derby on March 20th could well be the decider for that all important final Champions League spot.

Edward Russell
FOX Sports presenter