Which side will crack under the pressure? Manchester United, having lost five of nine games in 2014, slipping to seventh place in the Premier League; or Arsenal, just two points from the league summit, but a team in shock having been smashed by Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday?
United’s draw with Fulham on Sunday afternoon was perhaps a new low in a season of increasing frustration for supporters. It might ordinarily bode poorly ahead of the Reds’ trip to the capital, yet, so dramatic was Arsenal’s weekend defeat that it is hard to predict quite how Arsene Wenger’s side will react.
Still, United has beaten only Arsenal of the top nine Premier League teams this season – the 1-0 November victory at Old Trafford, with the Londoners caught on a rare autumn off-day. It was a win built not on fluidity, but a mental toughness that both United and Arsenal have lacked for much of this season. Indeed, United created just three chances from open play back in November. It may be a similar pattern on Wednesday night at the Emirates Stadium.
United certainly need a win, however it comes. The club has fallen nine points behind Liverpool and six off Tottenham Hotspur in the chase for Champions League qualification after the weekend’s results. Perhaps more than the points, manager David Moyes is desperate a more positive performance. The Scot’s credibility has seemingly eroded by the week since the turn of the year.
Moyes’ side boasts little confidence though and still less attacking variety. In the one dimensional approach once again deployed against Fulham this week there seems little on which the fans can base renewed hope. Not even Arsenal’s form. While the north Londoners defended poorly at Anfield, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have performed with distinction for most of the campaign.
Yet, there is that November victory to look back on – and memories of Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach against the Gunners in recent times are still fresh. The former United manager repeatedly set up United to be competitive in midfield and break quickly. It worked too, with the Reds securing 10 victories over Arsenal since 2008 alone.
“We’ll always try to get a good result against them,” said Moyes on Tuesday. “We got a good result against them at Old Trafford earlier on in the season and we’ll try to do the same again I think we’ve played better in several games, but in that one we got the one goal and that sometimes makes the difference. We are a top side and hopefully we’ll go and show that. We’ll play well and do everything we can to pick up all three points.”
On the pitch Moyes must lift his team from Sunday’s draw; one that must have felt far more akin to a defeat in an already demoralised dressing room. It is unlikely to be an easy task, although United’s form on the road has at times eclipsed that at Old Trafford.
In Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata three of the Scot’s attacking quartet is self-selecting, while Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Adnan Januzaj will compete for another spot. In central midfield Tom Cleverley will come under pressure from Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs for a role alongside Michael Carrick. However, Marouanne Fellaini, Phil Jones, Nani and Jonny Evans remain on the sidelines.
Whatever the line-up, midfielder Carrick believes that United must quickly forget Sunday’s disappointing result. The Geordie scored his first goal of the season against the Cottagers after coming under some fire from supporters in recent months.
“The only way to deal with it is to move on,” said Carrick, whose disappointed form this season has mirrored that of many in Moyes’ squad.
“Wednesday is a different game completely. We both had setbacks this weekend, so we will just look forward to the game. You have to deal with the down times as well. It has been a tough season and we are not in a very good position in the league. We keep saying we need to go on a run.
“The players care. It is the pride we have in ourselves and each other. No-one wants to go through a spell when people are questioning you and things are going wrong. It isn’t for the want of trying.”
Meanwhile, Arsenal forward Yaya Sanogo is available to face United on Wednesday after five months out with a back injury, although the Frenchman will make the bench at best. Key midfielder Mathieu Flamini completes a three-match suspension, while Kim Kallstrom, Thomas Vermaelen, About Diaby, Aaron Ramsey, and Theo Walcott are all on the sidelines with injury.
None of it helps Wenger rally his team for a key fixture. Not only does the Arsenal manager have to cope with massed injuries and the devastating loss in Liverpool, but with the pressure of being perennial Premier League under-achievers.
Little wonder many are looking to star summer purchase Mesut Ozil to spring from a mid-season slump that has brought much criticism. The German is suffering from the kind of dip in form that sometimes had ‘The Ghost’ on the sidelines during his time at Real Madrid.
Still, Wenger is confident that his side will recover from what he believes was a freak result at Anfield, with Ozil key to unlocking an under-performing United back four. And immediate results aside Arsenal still retain many tools to cause United damage in north London on Wednesday.
“You cannot consider one game as the trend of our season,” said Wenger.
“It was an accident, not welcome of course and a disappointing one, but a successful season is decided by how you respond to that. We tend always to forget how good we are when we are not successful. It is important to remember that until now we have done very well, that we are in front of a very important week for us and that we have worked very hard until now to get into this position. This group of players deserves success and I think they will respond in a very positive way on Wednesday.”
It is a message that Moyes might also give his team, although with so many poor results in recent times there are likely to be more than a few players doubting its veracity.
Arsenal v Manchester United, Premier League, Emirates, 7.45pm, 12 February 2014
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Wilshere, Arteta; Rosicky, Cazorla Özil; Giroud
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fletcher, Mata; Rooney; van Persie
Arsenal: Fabianski, Jenkinson, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Bendtner, Gnabry, Sanogo
United: Lindegaard, Buttner, Smalling, Kagawa, Januzaj, Giggs, Cleverley, Welbeck, Young, Hernández
Arsenal 78 Draw 47 United 92
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: M Mullarkey, D Cann
Fourth Official: L Mason