Needing just seven points to seal the Premier League title, Sir Alex Ferguson says that his Manchester United team will play to win against Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday. Victory, while not guaranteeing the title, will bring United to within touching distance of a 19th domestic championship. But, warns the Scot, all teams could drop points with just four games to go before the season’s end.
United faces an Arsenal team whose confidence has crumbled since losing the Carling Cup final to Birmingham City in February. Arsène Wenger’s side has dropped points against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers in the past fortnight, although there is still an outside chance the Londoners could win the title.
“There is still drama ahead,” said Ferguson on Friday, whose side is seeking a third win at the Emirates in a row.
“The teams at the top will drop points, including Chelsea. Two months ago everyone was looking at these two games as league deciders. They probably are now
“But if we get to the last home game needing to win it to win the league, I would be happy with that. The slant I seemed to be getting is that Arsenal and Chelsea are expecting to win these games and change the top of the league.
“Why can’t we win these matches? Surely, given the form we are in, we can. It is not going to be any easier for Arsenal or Chelsea than it is for us. These are difficult games. A point away from home at Arsenal is not the worst point – but that is not what we are going down there looking for.
“It’s important to keep momentum going by winning games. That’s vital. Draws don’t come into it now, it’s all about wins. We’ve got a big few games coming up and we need to win them.”
Ferguson will welcome back top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov for the match, which United has won 3-1 on the last two visits to north London. The Bulgarian has started just one of United’s past 13 matches but with 21 Premier League goals this season is likely to finish as the league’s top goalscorer. The 30-year-old has missed the past three matches with a minor groin strain.
Darren Fletcher also returns to the traveling party, although he is unlikely to start. The Scot has missed two months with a mystery virus but played the first half of the reserves’ 0-0 draw with Arsenal at Old Trafford on Thursday night. However, the Scotland captain has noticeably lost weight during the absence, although he has been in full training for the past two weeks.
“Dimitar is fit again. He had a slight groin strain but he has trained all week,” added Ferguson
“He [Fletcher] is progressing and it is possible we could include him on Wednesday for another 45 minutes. It is good that he is back. He has put his weight back on. He has worked hard in the gym. He is a great addition to the squad.”
Ferguson will rest midfielder Ryan Giggs for the trip despite the Welshman’s outstanding form in central midfield in the past two months. The 37-year-old scored United’s opening goal against Schalke on Tuesday night and has been a pivotal figure in a more fluid style adopted by United in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Ferguson may opt to bring Nani back into the side, with Antonio Valencia having played repeatedly since his return from injury. Fabio da Silva will continue at right-back with John O’Shea and his brother Rafael still struggling with injury.
Anderson is likely to start in Giggs’ place after the Brazilian’s purposeful showing against Everton last weekend. The €30 million midfielder has started just 12 Premier League matches in another disappointing campaign marked by inconsistent performances and injury. Yet the youngster, still just 22-years-old, is likely to take on the creative midfield mantle next season unless Ferguson’s breaks with recent tradition and buys an established midfielder during the summer.
Indeed, Ferguson admitted that United lacks the same creative force as in previous campaigns, with more workmanlike players coming to the fore this season. It is an attitude, along with United’s playing and coaching experience, which Ferguson believes will serve the Reds well during the final matches of the season.
“This team might not have the ‘Ronaldo’ factor, but it doesn’t understand the word defeat,” said Ferguson, whose side has lost just three matches in the Premier League.
“It’s determined, gritty and very professional, and it’s produced some great moments. It’s not as if we’ve been devoid of that [fantasy]. Some of the football we’ve seen from the players this season has been terrific.
“We’ve had some fantastic games over the years at this stage of the season, but we’ve also had some disappointments. You’ve just got to take the rough with the smooth.
“The players see how staff behave and how they conduct themselves in situations like we’re in at the moment, and there’s a lot of experience amongst the backroom team, which provides a calming influence.
Two or three of the older players help too. The likes of Ryan, Paul, Rio and Edwin – we’ve got enough experience to handle any situation that comes along.”
Meanwhile, Wenger faces the challenge of rebuilding his side’s confidence following a damaging period in which Carling loss was followed by FA Cup and Champions League exits and a crumbling title challenge. Wenger is without injured duo Alou Diaby and Łukasz Fabianski, although key defender Thomas Vermaelen came through the reserve fixture with United on Thursday night and could start.
The Frenchman’s outfit has won just twice since the loss to Birmingham, and one of those matches was against League Two outfit Leyton Orient in the FA Cup. Coupled with the Londoners’ horrendous recent record against United, in which Ferguson’s side has won eight of the last 10 meetings, few expect Arsenal to provide any resistance on Sunday afternoon.
United’s manager, players and millions of supporters are counting on it.
Premier League. Emirates, London, 2.05pm.
Arsenal – 433 – Szczesny; Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Clichy; Song, Wilshere, Fabregas;Walcott, van Persie, Nasri. Subs from: Lehmann, Squillaci, Eboue, Gibbs, Chamakh, Ramsey, Arshavin, Bendtner, Djourou.
United – 4411 – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Valencia, Owen, O’Shea, Giggs, Berbatov.
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistant referees: John Flynn & Andy Garratt
Fourth official: Lee Mason
Arsenal – DDWDDL
United – WWLDWW