Robin van Persie will command the headlines Sunday afternoon, although the former Arsenal striker is unlikely to receive a welcoming entrance at the Emirates. Manchester United’s visit to north London less than a week after claiming the Premier League title ensures that the Dutchman garners a much discussed ‘Guard of Honour’ from his former colleagues; a customary recognition that will do little for the home supporters’ mood.
It is in keeping with modern football of course, but the abuse meted out to van Persie at his old stomping ground is likely to both be severe and personal. Little of it will bother the remarkably mature Dutchman, who has scored 27 goals in his début season for the club.
That van Persie has secured the prize he sought when leaving the Emirates last summer is only likely to heighten the hate generated on the terraces though.
Still, with Arsenal finishing the season strongly in the hunt for fourth place the home side has much to play for away from the focus on a former player. Meanwhile United, driven by the goal of reaching a record 96 points, but potentially attenuated by the recent triumph, is a beast unknown.
Indeed, with the title won Sir Alex Ferguson has already ditched the bravado of victory to focus on the next challenge. No matter the season’s stage, winning is all says the 71-year-old Scot. United must secured 12 points from four remaining games to beat Chelsea’s record top flight tally of 95 achieved under José Mourinho in 2005.
“At a club like Manchester United there’s an expectation to live up to,” Ferguson said.
“You really need to win all the time and that’s all there is to it. I’ve said to the players it’s one thing being champions of the Premier League but another thing to set a record. We have an opportunity to set the record and, hopefully, we can do that. If we can do that, 96 points would be phenomenal. I don’t know if that could ever be beaten but nonetheless it’s a marvellous achievement by us.”
United host Chelsea at Old Trafford next weekend, followed by matches against Swansea City and then West Bromwich Albion on the final day of the season. With little to play for, achieving a points record is likely to be a tough ask, with Chelsea and Arsenal competing with Tottenham Hotspur for two Champions League places.
“Well, there are four different types of challenge,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“We’ve got Arsenal who are chasing a Champions League position and then it’s Chelsea, who are in exactly the same position as Arsenal. I think we’ve got a duty to other clubs who are chasing Champions League places.
“Also, the rivalry we’ve had with Arsenal and then Chelsea over the years does put an edge to these games anyway so hopefully we’ll represent ourselves in the right way.
“Having won the league, there’s always a danger of falling into the trap of ‘it’s all over and we can relax’ and enjoy ourselves but .
Ferguson is likely to field a changed side at the Emirates, with defenders Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić available for recall. The veteran pair missed United’s title-clinching victory over Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Monday night.
Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans suffered injury against Villa, although neither misses the trip altogether, while Paul Scholes is still unavailable with a sore knee. The 38-year-old has less than a month before an inevitable second retirement this summer. Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck could come back into the team, with Phil Jones deployed in midfield.
“We have a few bumps and bruises from the other night but it is hopefully nothing serious and I expect to have a strong side on Sunday,” Ferguson confirmed.
“Two of the players played with an injury throughout the [Villa] game – Jonny Evans and Michael Carrick. Next week, I should have Vida and Rio back. I can put Jones into the middle of the pitch and play Vida and Rio together and we’ll get the experience going to Arsenal.
“A lot of the younger players have been on the fringes for the last few weeks, and I desperately want them to feel their contribution has been big. Chicharito, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Nani – I think it’s important to get them involved in the last few weeks.”
Meanwhile, Arsène Wenger’s side holds a single point advantage over Chelsea and Spurs in the hunt for fourth place. Tottenham’s draw with Wigan Athletic on Saturday hands an advantage to their north London rivals – with matches against Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic and Newcastle United to come, qualification is surely the Gunners’ to lose.
Still, the question of whether United’s intensity will drop is a potent one, especially with the Premier League secure. Ferguson’s call for focus chimes poorly with a sense of complacency that has crept into United’s play at times this season, particularly during the second half of matches. It is an understandable conceit with 27 victories achieved in the Premier League.
“It’s easy to ease off, yes,” said Wenger, who has never finished outside the top four in a more than a decade with Arsenal.
“I do not hope too much. It is a special game, always, a little bit because naturally the stress is not there any more. Your tendency is to relax a little bit. You are still on the high for the next game. It would be a big mistake for us to think they will ease off straight away on Sunday.”
Yet, if Ferguson’s side does drop its intensity level at the Emirates it is unlikely to be the returning hero that does so. The striker has found a rich vein of form at just the right time. Nine matches without a goal ended with five scored in the last three, including the stunning hat-trick against Villa.
That United has tasted defeat just once in the past 11 meetings with Arsenal bodes well for van Persie. And while the Dutchman celebrated in muted fashion after scoring in the fixture between these sides at Old Trafford, none of the visiting supporters will begrudge the Dutchman his moment on Sunday. Especially in the face of mass vitriol.
Arsenal v Manchester United – Premier League, Emirates – 4pm, 28 April 2013
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Ramsey, Arteta, Wilshere; Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski. Subs from: Mannone, Coquelin, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Rosicky, Gervinho, Arshavin, Oxlade-Chamberlain
United (4-4-2): de Gea; Rafael, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Jones; Cleverley, Carrick, Rooney; Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Jones, Evans, Powell, Carrick, Valencia, Anderson, Giggs, Nani, Welbeck, Hernández
Referee: P Dowd
Assistants: A Garratt and S Ledger
Fourth official: M Oliver
Last 10: Arsenal 1, United 8, Draw 1
Overall: Arsenal 78, United 91, Draw 46
- Per Mertesacker’s goal against Fulham last weekend helped Arsenal climb into third place in the Premier League with a 1-0 victory at Craven Cottage;
- Midfielder Jack Wilshere started that game on the bench, but is likely to feature against United – the youngster boasts a pass in his opponent’s half once every 2 and half minutes this season;
- Kieran Gibbs boasts a tackle success rate of 71.2 per cent from 66 attempted challenges this season,
- Striker Olivier Giroud’s red card last weekend ensures the Frenchman is suspended for United’s visit, proffering Theo Walcott an opportunity through the middle – Walcott boasts the best minutes-per-shot rate of any player in the Gunners squad at one every 30.2 minutes;
- Robin van Persie’s hat-trick against Villa secured a 20th league title for United last Monday – they were the 22nd, 23rd and 24th Premier League goals of the Dutchman’s season;
- van Persie’s goals have come amid an attempt on goal once every 24.7 minutes on average this season, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Michael Carrick has finally garnered the recognition his consistent performances have long deserved – the midfielder has achieved more than 1000 successful passes in the opponent’s half this season and is the only United player to do so;
- Jonny Evans may not play at the Emirates, but the Northern Irishman has again blossomed this season, achieving the best tackle success rate in the United squad of 73.5 per cent from 34 attempted challenges.