Sir Alex Ferguson’s buoyant Manchester United side travel to London for what the Scot has billed is the biggest game of the season so far. Fresh from the euphoric defeat of Manchester City on Wednesday night, Ferguson’s team is in confident mood despite the loss of suspended central defender Rio Ferdinand.
United has a mixed record at the Emirates, having lost twice in the league at Arsenal’s new north London base. But a famous victory in the Champions League semi-final last season and a scrappy win at Old Trafford earlier this season bodes well for Ferguson’s men.
Arsenal, second in the Premier League table after a an excellent run since defeat to Chelsea in November, pose a serious threat to United’s title ambitions in a three-way race for Premier League silverware come May.
“The game on Sunday, looking at the way the league is shaping up now, is the biggest game of the season. Arsenal are on a really consistent run,” said Ferguson, who believes that consistency lies at the core on United’s assault on the summit following nine defeats in all competitions this season.
“The most consistent team will win the league now. That’s what Arsenal has done and we’re really looking forward to it.”
With 21-goal talisman Wayne Rooney in the form of his life, Ferguson will again deploy the former-Evertonian as a lone front-man in a tactical system that will closely match that of the home side. But the key battle could lie in midfield, where Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas will meet the man who has consistently won the personal duel between them, Darren Fletcher.
Fletcher, whom Arsenal’s embittered manager Arsène Wenger accused of playing “anti football” in United’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford this season, has dominated his Spanish opponent in recent seasons.
“I don’t think Darren is destructive, he is competitive,” Ferguson said of the Dalkeith-born Scotsman who is likely to play alongside Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes in a three-man central midfield.
“There are not many players who run off the ball as well as him in the game.
“His movement, energy and commitment are fantastic. It is a wonderful to see a player achieving the level of endurance Darren can put into a match.”
In an unlikely comparison, Ferguson says United’s number 24 is similar to former Old Trafford player, turned academy director, Brian McClair. The striker, whom Ferguson signed from Celtic in 1988, converted to a all-action midfielder in the latter part of his career.
“He was exactly the same. When the ball moved he moved,” said Ferguson of McClair.
“He was a fantastic player for us in that way and Darren is in the same mould because he must run more than anyone. His energy and awareness of space are excellent. There are not many big games Darren has not played in over the years
“We have been saying how good he is for a while. Maybe it has taken longer for the fans to appreciate the qualities the boy has.
“There is nothing you can do about that. He is not a stylish player by any manner of means. He is ungainly and gangly. But he is a fantastic player.”
With Ferdinand missing Ferguson will choose the returning Nemanja Vidic alongside Jonny Evans in central defence, with Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra at full-back. Despite Ferdinand’s loss, United’s back-four is beginning to show some selection consistency with the return of Evans and Rafael.
And another man returning from the wilderness, Nani, could hold the key to United’s performance with the Portuguese midfielder superb in his last three outings. He’ll need to do the same again today in support of Rooney.