Manchester United are just two victories away from eclipsing Liverpool's record of 18 league championships as they return to action on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium. Fresh from a fantastic team display on Tuesday in the Champions League against Schalke, the Reds know that consecutive wins against the Gunners and then Chelsea next Sunday will seal their place in history.
With virtually a full strength squad to choose from, Sir Alex Ferguson has the resources to navigate his way through a busy schedule of matches while keeping everyone fresh for the challenges that lie in wait. Although a tough task, it would be a fitting way to achieve the nineteenth title.
The Reds have an excellent recent record against the Gunners in recent years.They are unbeaten in their last seven (having won six, unbeaten in four) and have lost just once in the last twelve. You could argue that currently United have something of a hold over Arsenal psychologically who appear to lack the conviction that they can beat the Reds on a consistent basis.
Arsenal have endured a difficult campaign with the end result being another trophyless season to go with the five others they have suffered in succession. In late February, they were competing on all four fronts and looking ahead to a glorious climax to the season but just a few short weeks later, their hopes rapidly faded as defeats to Birmingham, Barcelona and United meant they exited the cup competitions in rapid succession. A run of draws against unfancied opposition has also derailed their title credentials culminating in defeat against Bolton last Sunday.
There can be little doubt that the Gunners possess a vast array of talent within their squad with the likes of Fabregas, Wilshere, Van Persie and Nasri all enjoying productive seasons but at the final fence they appear to lack the mental stability so in abundance at Old Trafford. You would also have to question the role of the manager in their capitulation this season. Arsene Wenger has displayed numerous examples of mental disintegration in recent weeks with water bottles, referees and Kenny Dalglish all coming under either physical or verbal attacks. When the Arsenal players see these antics pitchside, one wonders the effect it has on their state of mind.
It will be an interesting summer at the Emirates in terms of movement in the transfer market. Will Wenger finally decide that a change in personnel and philosophy is required to change the fortunes of his team or will the stubbornness, that is bordering on recklessness, continue?
This game has fascinating battles all over the pitch. Carrick, Anderson and Rooney versus Song, Fabregas and Wilshere looks a fantastic tussle and one which could ultimately decide the game. Both Carrick and Song, as the deepest players in midfield for their teams, like nothing more than to have time on the ball and are vulnerable when pressure is applied. I would look for Rooney to buzz around Song, upsetting him with a pressing game as he is susceptible to a rash challenge and poor distribution. On the other side, Fabregas may try to do a similar job on Carrick but the United man is a much better technical player than Song so should be able to handle this attention.
The wide areas will once again be fascinating. Both teams possess full backs that are better going forward than defensively (unless O'Shea plays). Sagna and Walcott down Arsenal's right will look to expose Evra's dip in form defensively but the Frenchman has repeatedly turned the tables on this duo by being one of the catalysts in the Reds counter attacking verve at the Emirates in recent years. Few will forget how he cruised past Walcott in helping to lay on a tap-in for Ronaldo a few years back. On the other side, Nasri and Clichy have suffered a drop in quality recently that United could exploit. Nasri will always looks to come inside and is not a winger as such, so Clichy may be a candidate for a United full back on the overlap.
The main key to United success in recent times at the Emirates has been the counter attack with memories of Ronaldo, Rooney, Park and Nani all enjoying the freedom of the park at times as the home side get caught by runners from all areas of the pitch. Tomorrow will be no different I am sure, but this time the Gunners will surely be more wary. They will not be able to play a high defensive line as Hernández' pace will be a concern so there should be plenty of space in midfield for the likes of Carrick and Rooney (when dropping deep) to exploit.
United approach the game on Sunday in fine fettle after the comfortable win against Schalke in midweek. With Chelsea having the opportunity to apply some pressure with a win in the early evening kick-off against Spurs tonight, meaning that they could cut the advantage to three points, the Reds will know what it is expected of them.
The back five is the one that was selected in Germany and the only real dilemma for the manager is whether to restore either Rafael or O'Shea at right back. I have chosen Fábio to retain his place after a sound display in midweek but it would not be a surprise to see either of those mentioned selected.
The manager expressed his desire to give Giggs a break for this game so Carrick's midfield partner should be Anderson in preference to Gibson with Scholes suspended. The Brazilian will look to impress after a man of the match display against Everton last Saturday. He has often flattered to deceive in away games so it will be interesting to see how he approaches the games up against the likes of Song, Fabregas and Wilshere. United fans long for some consistency from Anderson and a solid display is required if the doubters are to be won over. My wide men for Sunday are Nani and Park. Both have good memories of the Emirates recently with both goals and assists prevalent and with a pacey counter attacking style likely to be on display once again, these two are perfect. It also allows the manager to rest the hard working Valencia ahead of games to come. The inclusion of Park also means that he can assist the midfield duo when required and helps the formation become more solid when the opposition have the ball. Nani's return on the right is also welcome as he is yet to convince when on the opposite side. If Fábio is selected at right back then it is feasible that Nani could play on the left as from a defensive point of view, the flank could be vulnerable. Switching Park to that side would make sense from this angle but Nani must exude greater confidence on his left foot than he has in recent weeks.
Although Dimitar Berbatov is restored to the squad after a groin injury, it is inconceivable that the first choice pairing of Rooney and Hernández will be broken up in such an important game. Sir Alex has spoken recently about the need to protect the little Mexican from potential burn out so the return leg against Schalke is a tie where he may well be left on the bench.
With United in such vibrant form with Rooney pulling the strings and the Gunners looking mentally and physically drained, the Reds will go to the Emirates almost expecting a positive result. However, with the pressure off, Arsenal will be a dangerous opponent. Freed from the shackles of chasing United's coat tails for so long, it could have a dramatic revitalising effect on the home side. On the other hand, you could argue that you cannot simply expect to turn the tap of form on and off when required and that the Reds should simply be too strong.
Either way, it will be a fascinating battle as the Reds look for the points required to regain their title. Although it will be close, I can see the quality and spirit of United proving the difference as they force a narrow 1-2 victory over their rivals. The goals will come from Nani and Rooney sandwiched between a Nasri equaliser.
It would be easy to look at these two league fixtures and be concerned for United at such a crucial stage of the season but I will conclude with a quote from the manager that succinctly paraphrases the situation to perfection:
"Surely in the form we are in, we can win these matches. They are not easy games but they are not going to be easy games for Arsenal or Chelsea either are they?"
Both of our main rivals would prefer to be facing any other side than Manchester United at this time.
What a fitting tribute to the class of 2010-11 if they are able to prevail against these sides thus securing the holy grail of league championship number nineteen in the process. In so doing, laying the foundations for further glory at Wembley in late May echoing the exploits of Busby's boys of 1968.
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