It is another decisive weekend in the Premier League, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at Arsenal on Sunday afternoon, and Manchester City hosting Tottenham Hotspur for late lunch. The potential from the two results swing cannot win Manchester United the Premier League title, but as the proverbial sometimes goes, a six point gap come Sunday night would certainly go some way to sending the title towards Eastlands.
Ferguson will be thankful, then, that the United injury list is down to just the seven absentees for the weekend’s fixture as the Reds face an Arsenal side out of the Premier League race, but still possessing enough firepower to damage the visitor’s dreams.
That is to say little of the redemption Arsène Wenger’s men will seek after United’s humiliating 8-2 victory at Old Trafford earlier this season. It was a result that had some Arsenal fans calling for the Frenchman’s head, and ensures a far tighter match this time out.
“It won’t be as open as the last time. There is no chance of that,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.
“There won’t be a lot between the two teams. They have only lost six goals at home this season so we are well aware it is going to be a hard game. I just hope we can get the result we want and need. I have never used revenge as part of my motivation. It rankles but you have to forget it. I am sure Arsène did that. That is what I would have done anyway.”
The fixture should see the return of two old stagers in Paul Scholes and Thierry Henry, although the later is struggling with a training ground injury. Scholes may start in the absence of other midfielders.
Yet, the United manager says that old rivalries between the teams have died over the six years the Arsenal have gone without a major trophy. It is a period in which Chelsea and now City have challenged United for the Premier League crown, and not the north Londoners.
“I don’t think that [Arsenal not being a threat] is the issue. I think it’s because they are different types of teams,” added Ferguson.
“The type of player they had, the likes of Vieira, Petit, Henry, Tony Adams and Steve Bould, has been replaced by a different type now. It’s a younger player, a different type altogether. Arsène has not changed his philosophy and it has paid dividends for Arsenal over a long period. He is still trying to do the same things. He is still trying to entertain and to play their football their way. You have to go back five or six years for when it was last combustible, when Keane and Vieira had that slanging match in the tunnel.”
The United manager will again be without long-term injury victims Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić, but there is some brighter news elsewhere. The Scot will at least be able to call on defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones at the Emirates, although Rio Ferdinand may again miss out with a troublesome back.
Anderson is likely to be sidelined too, although Ferguson had positive news on key midfielder Cleverley, who may be just three weeks away from a competitive return.
“We’re a bit better in terms of injuries,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.
“Smalling and Jones will be fit, and Cleverley and Young have done some running, which is good. But Anderson is still a bit a short – he got an injury in training last week. Tom and Ashley are doing a good running programme and their fitness levels are good. They have done a lot of work, he and Ashley.
“I am hopeful in 10 days’ time he [Tom] will be playing football on the training side of it. That is the plan anyway, unless there is any recurrence. We can kick on then. It would be a great boost to have them both back – they’re influential players.
“The way Cleverley started the season was phenomenal and he’s been a loss. He’s got something different from the others. It depends how he does in the training, but his fitness levels should be fine. He could cope right away. If he does, you are talking about a week.”
If news of Cleverley’s potentially return has offered Ferguson’s men a genuine lift, then there is also a warning about Arsenal’s ability to still impact this title race. Wenger’s men may be 15 points behind City, but the Londoners host both Manchester sides before the campaign ends. Indeed, midfielder Michael Carrick believes that Arsenal remains a factor this season, with Wenger’s men in fine form until recent losses to Fulham and Swansea City.
“They didn’t start the season too well but they are still up there,” claimed the Geordie midfielder.
“Arsenal against Manchester United is always a massive game. They will want to win and so will we. Manchester City have done well. You have to give them credit. They set an early pace, had a funny Christmas period, and have now bounced back. It’s close at the moment, so we want to catch up with them. The bar has been raised this year.”
Meanwhile, the Gunners have an injury list every bit as long as United’s, with up to eight players likely to miss the fixture. Wenger will be without defenders Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna and André Santos, while midfielders Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta will sit out the tie. Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho are at the Africa Cup of Nations. Loanee Henry will face a late fitness test.
Despite the absences in Robin van Persie the Londoners still retain the league’s in-form striker. The Dutchman has 26 goals in all competitions this season.
“Van Persie has scored a lot of goals and is playing really well,” added United striker Wayne Rooney.
“He will be the biggest threat for Arsenal on Sunday. Van Persie and Ramsey are certainly the two who have stood out for them this season. It is not about me and Van Persie. It is about us against Arsenal. That is what we will be focusing on. There are a lot of top strikers in the league; Van Persie, Sergio Aguero, Yakubu is playing really well. It is about us against Arsenal. That is what we will be focusing on.”
With United only a victory away from drawing level with City at the Premier League summit or, indeed, slipping six points behind, Ferguson, Rooney and the United squad will surely be more focussed that the Reds’ last league match on the road – a devastating 3-0 loss to Newcastle United.
Yet, with back-to-back wins since that rocky Christmas period, and key players coming back into the squad, there is a little more reason for optimism than just a few short weeks ago.
Arsenal versus Manchester United, Premier League, Emirates, Sunday 22 January 2012, 4pm.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Miquel; Rosicky, Ramsey, Song; Walcott, van Persie, Arshavin. Subs from: Almunia, Squillaci, Miyaichi, Eastmond, Benayoun, Henry, Park, Oxlade-Chamberlain.
United (4-4-1-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Jones, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Nani; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: De Gea, Fryers, Smalling, Cole, Giggs, Fabio, Rafael, Jones, Park, Lingard, Diouf, Keane, Hernandez, Welbeck, Berbatov.
- United secured a 3-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers in the last Premier League game;
- Wayne Rooney covered the most ground for United in that game with 5.65 miles;
- United fans welcomed back a goalscoring Paul Scholes on his first league game back for the club;
- Scholes covered 3.94 miles in that game in 69 minutes on the pitch, impressively close to the total of 4.16 miles set by Nani who was substituted at the same time;
- Danny Welbeck and Michael Carrick were also on target for United in that game. Welbeck’s goal was his fifth of the season, coming from 30 efforts at goal with 73 per cent on target;
- Carrick posted the second highest total distance ran against Bolton with 5.61 miles;
- Meanwhile, Arsenal lost 3-2 at a battling Swansea City in the last Premier League match;
- Midfielder Aaron Ramsey covered the most ground for Arsenal in that game with 6.57 miles, the 14th time this season the Welsh midfielder has topped the distance charts for the Gunners;
- Goals from Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie were not enough to secure victory for the Gunners though. van Persie’s goal was his 18th in the Premier League this season, and restores his place at the top of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- van Persie’s goals have come from an incredible 90 efforts at goal, with 62 per cent on target. He has also put in 34 crosses and contributed six assists.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral)
Assistants: S Burt, A Watts
Fourth Official: P Dowd