27 February 2016

Foxes and Irons and Chavs, oh my! Can the Gunners keep pace?

Manchester United have sent a strong signal of intent with a fearsome thrashing of FC Midtjylland, winning that second leg 5-1 to book a spot in the Europa League round of 16. Surely, all will be on notice now as Van Gaal's minions dominated club that's existed since...well...1999. Sorry, we've lost the plot a bit. Man U's fading Prem hopes suggest that their best path to rejoining the Champions League might be to win the Europa League. However, despite that impressive scoreline, injury-woes continue to mount, and it's up to Arsenal to stick a knife what remains of those Prem hopes on Sunday.

Although we shot ourselves in the foot against Barça, we showed for more than an hour that we can go toe-to-toe with one of the best squads in the world, all but shutting down the awesome trio of Messi-Neymar-Suárez until one fateful counterattack pulled the rug out from under us. Still, the confidence our lads should carry from that performance should certainly carry over into our trip to Old Trafford, where we've done fairly well for ourselves, winning the last time we were there and drawing more recently.

While Man U should get a boost of their own after bullying their Danish foes, their squad grows thinner by the day. Before the match, Chris Smalling was ruled out after injuring his shoulder. In the warm-up, Anthony Martial did his hamstring. Van Gaal now has 16 players carrying various injuries. It’s entirely possible that key players like de Gea will be available. Even if he and others are ruled out, though, we can ill-afford to waltz in assuming that we’ll smash this squad in its collective mouth. There is too much at stake at their end. If they lose, they could drop as low as eighth and see their Prem season end in one fell swoop. For as much as we need this match to keep up the pressure on Leicester and Tottenham (excuse me as I just vomited ever so slightly), they need it to keep their season off of life support.

As for us, if we can summon even a fraction of the determination, passion, and, yes, tactical nous that we showed against Barca, we will crush whoever it is Van Gaal throws on against us. Although the result was disappointing, it wasn’t nearly as bad as anyone predicted. Sadly, however, we’re more likely to see a performance similar to the previous one—against Bournemouth—when we struggled to break down a stubbornly hunkered down opponent on its home turf. Even when Van Gaal has had a fully fit squad, he’s set up to play not to lose, as if preparing Mancunians for a possible Mourinho coronation.

Who’ll be the man of the hour? The sexy pick is of course Danny Welbeck, he of the heroic goal against Leicester and the point to prove against his former club. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alexis Sanchez erupt after lying dormant. His performance against his former club offered tantalising glimpses of his passion and potential, and I think he’s due a breakthrough. The makeshift backline Van Gaal will likely have to go with—debutantes Varela and Riley either side of Blind and McNair—should have Alexis salivating at the possibilities. The entire squad has hit a bit of a dry patch in the last month or so, but I’m pegging that Chilean dynamo as the one to release the flood-gates.

LAST 3
Arsenal 3-0 Man U (04.10.2015)
Man U 1-1 Arsenal (17.05.2015)
Man U 1-2 Arsenal (22.11.2014)

FACTFILE
These two clubs first clashed on 1 August 1894, a 3-2 win for Woolwich Arsenal over Newton Heath.
Arsenal have a chance to do the double on Man U for the first time since 2006-07.

INJURIES
Rosický, Wilshere, Ox, and Cazorla have all been ruled out. Gabriel faces a late injury test.

POSSIBLE STARTING XI
Čech; Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Bellerín; Coquelin, Ramsey; Alexis, Özil, Walcott; Giroud.

Van Gaal's threadbare squad will struggle to stave off a hungry Arsenal attack.

PREDICTION
Manchester United 1-3 Arsenal