For the first time in forty years, Manchester United and Arsenal will play in the second half of the season outside of top four. Not only does it show how far the two giants of English football have fallen, but also represents a genuine risk of what could easily be the norm for the next few seasons.
Arsenal were humiliated at White Hart Lane on Sunday after a convincing defeat in the last ever North London Derby in the hallowed turf. Their away form (5 defeats in the last 6 outings) has been the worst it has ever got under Wenger and the uncertainty surrounding the club – thickens like a cloud with every passing week threatening to pour every time the French manager faces the media.
At the Emirates however, Arsenal have fared much better with three wins and a draw in the last four at home but anything less than 3 points on Sunday will effectively end the slim chance they have got to sneak into one of the Champions League places.
Manchester United are still unbeaten in the league in a run spanning six months and 25 games. But of the available 75 points, they Red Devils have only picked up 51 points – 11 less than league leaders Chelsea. But following the draw against Swansea City in the weekend and an impressive 0-1 win at Celta Vigo in midweek, United and Jose Mourinho will be looking to put all their eggs in one basket that does not say ‘Premier League’ on the outside.
The Portuguese manager spoke about fielding a weakened team resting a few key players, with one eye on the return leg at Old Trafford – where even a draw could see them safely through to Stockholm to play in their first ever Europa League final in history. But it remains to be seen whether it is not one of Mourinho’s old mind games to unsettle his long-term rival.
The big injury news from Arsenal is the absence of midfielder Granit Xhaka sue to an ankle injury he suffered against Tottenham Hotspur. While Lucas Perez will also certainly miss the visit of Manchester United, the Gunners could be boosted by the return of center-half Shkodran Mustafi.
Manchester United will have some first team members back in Chris Smalling who played the last five minutes in midweek, Phil Jones and Juan Mata who was an unused substitute in the away win in Spain. Marcus Rashford suffered a minor injury which could rule the 19-year old out of the game while Ashley Young will also certainly miss the Red Devils’ long trip down South, with the full-back suffering a hamstring problem. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Timothy Fosu-Mensah remain long-term absentees.
Sanchez is two goals away from scoring his 50th Premier League goal for Arsenal, becoming the 8th player to do this for the Gunners.
Manchester United haven’t lost consecutive away Premier League games against Arsenal since November 2001.
This will be Arsene Wenger’s 58th match as Arsenal manager against Manchester United in all competitions. It’s the side the Frenchman has faced most often with the Gunners, but also the side he’s got the lowest win rate against (29% – minimum of 15 games).
Jose Mourinho has faced Arsenal without losing more times in the Premier League than the has any other side (12 – W5 D7 L0).
Hector Bellerin – Arsenal
The right back was and still is one of the league’s best full-backs and one of his best games for Arsenal came against Man United when they blew them away 3-0 in the opening 20 minutes in 2015/16. But a year in football is a long time and the 22-year old has found himself in the midst of bad hairstyles often mirroring his sub-par performances on the pitch, much to the ire of Arsenal fans.
But if the Gunners were to beat Man United and salvage some of the lost pride on Sunday, they will need their full-backs, Bellerin in particular, to exploit United’s lack of pace and energy to get in behind and cause problems as often as they can.
Wayne Rooney – Manchester United
If Wayne Rooney is indeed entering his final month of a distinguished career at Manchester United, what better way to do it than scoring against one of the sides he almost always gets on the score-sheet against?
The 31-year old has been playing little more than a bit part role in a long season under Mourinho but on Sunday his experience and big game mentality could be vital for United getting over the line at the Emirates to keep their ‘other’ door to the Champions League open.
Wayne Rooney has scored more Premier League goals against Arsenal than any other player in Premier League history (11) and while we are at it, another significant milestone – the remarkable 200-goal mark in the Premier League (197 so far) is now well in his sights and it will be fascinating to see if one of Premier League’s greatest ever forwards could do it one more time at Arsenal for the Red Devils.
It’s not hard to predict how the away side will approach the game at the Emirates. But Arsenal, as prolific as they can be on their day, have not been good enough for far too long now.
And Wenger against Mourinho has historically ended only one way.