In one of the most anticipated matches of the season Manchester United and Arsenal will fight for their place in the FA Cup semifinals. The grounds for another epic clash between the giants has been prepared for a while. Both teams are engaged in the battle for a Champions League place and all hell breaks loose if the gap between the teams remains one point ahead of the penultimate league match at Old Trafford.
This FA Cup clash has a huge importance for both managers. Manchester United have won just one trophy since Alex Ferguson’s retirement (Community Shield 2013-14) despite spending hundreds of millions on the likes of Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera in the last two years which means Louis Van Gaal – who has failed to make Manchester United at least watchable if not successful – is under serious pressure to deliver a trophy. On the other hand, Arsene Wenger has relieved the pressure by winning the FA Cup last May and Community Shield in August but is still expected to go all the way in this competition. Wenger has a special motive to retain the Cup – he would leap-frog Ferguson on the all-time list and join George Ramsay on the top with six trophies, Arsenal would become the most successful team in the competition (currently leveled with Manchester United) and only the fourth club in the history of the competition that have managed to retain the trophy on two occasions (2001-02, 2002-03).
Our trips to Old Trafford since the last victory in September 2006 haven’t been very successful to put it mildly. We have managed to stay undefeated on just one occasion – 0:0 in 2008-09 – and Manchester United had already secured the title. Since then we have played two FA Cup matches on their soil and both times United won without conceding (4:0, 2:0).
This time, however, things are a bit different. First of all, United without Ferguson are not the same force they used to be. They are out of the title race with expensive players past their prime (Van Persie, Carrick, Valencia), ones that have failed to justify their price tag (Fellaini, Falcao, Mata, Di Maria), some that are still just hot prospects (Shaw, Januzaj), some that are not top-drawer quality (Evans, Smalling, Rafael, Young) and also the players that keep United in the Top Four (Rooney, Jones, Herrera, De Gea, Blind).
Manchester United’s results have been much better than their performances. In the last twenty-two matches in all competitions they have lost just two – Southampton and Swansea – with respective victories over direct rivals for a Champions League place Arsenal (2:1), Southampton (2:1) and Liverpool (3:0).
If there is a player in the current United team that has been a stand-out performer, it’s David De Gea. The Spanish goalkeeper has been the main reason why United have managed to keep pace with their rivals for a Champions League place. His saves against us at the Emirates and against Liverpool at Old Trafford spared United from conceding first. Who knows, perhaps Louis Van Gaal would have been axed by now had Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling opened the scoreline in the aforementioned games.
Of course, Wayne Rooney is always a menace when he plays against us. Given that his partner Van Persie is out due to injury, Rooney has a more important role in attack but he might get a special assignment by Van Gaal – to drop deeper in order to mark Cazorla.
Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao are yet to live up to expectation at Old Trafford but that doesn’t mean our defenders can forget about them. Both the South-Americans are capable of creating a goal or two out of nothing so we must be prepared for a tactical battle in which we must not let ourselves lose focus.
Marouane Fellaini’s physical presence might be a big task for our big players, notably Per Mertesacker and Olivier Giroud.
Our team for the game at Old Trafford will be different to who started against QPR last Wednesday. Gabriel De Abreu is injured and can’t play.
Wojciech Szczesny will return between the sticks and he’ll have every motive to do well in order to reclaim a starting berth for the league matches as well. The Pole hasn’t had many fond memories from Old Trafford but perhaps tomorrow he can remind us of the best performances by Jens Lehmann.
Hector Bellerin will maraud down the right side of the pitch but his defensive job will have to come first.
Nacho Monreal should return to the team. Kieran Gibbs had a spectacular match against QPR attacking-wise but his defensive game still lacks something Nacho already has.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are our pair in the middle of the defence.
Francis Coquelin will battle in the midfield. He’ll have to watch out for cards as the referee might be tempted to pick Le Coq for the proverbial red card we usually get at Old Trafford.
Now, it’s interesting to see who’ll join Coquelin in the middle. Santi Cazorla should be a safe bet for the team too but who is going to be our third midfielder? Aaron Ramsey? He has returned from injury and lacks a bit of sharpness. Tomas Rosicky? He is always excellent but Wenger seems to be cautious with his playing time. Mesut Özil or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Highly unlikely – both of them are more likely to play as wingers.
Alexis, Özil and Giroud are a dangerous trident that will keep stabbing at the hosts. At some point we might see Danny Welbeck making a return to Old Trafford.
All-in-all, it should be our victory. It’s been long over-due – Aaron Ramsey’s goal in May 2011 gave us our last victory over the fierce rivals. Alexis will create the opener with a low cross for Giroud in the first half while the Big Handsome Frenchman will create a wonderful lay-off for Ramsey’s goal.
And then – Wembley!
Head to Head
Premier League (EPL) 22 Nov 2014 Arsenal FC 1 – Manchester United 2
Premier League (EPL) 12 Feb 2014 Arsenal FC 0 – Manchester United 0
Premier League (EPL) 10 Nov 2013 Manchester United 1 – Arsenal FC 0
Premier League (EPL) 28 Apr 2013 Arsenal FC 1 – Manchester United 1
Premier League (EPL) 3 Nov 2012 Manchester United 2 – Arsenal FC 1
Bellerin Mertesacker (c) Koscielny Monreal
Alexis Cazorla Özil
Manchester United 0 v 2 Arsenal FC