September 21, 2003, Old Trafford… Referee Steve Bennett sends off Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira in the 80th minute for kicking out at Manchester United’s striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy. 10 minutes later, Diego Forlan is brought down in the penalty area by Martin Keown and United are awarded a spot kick. Up steps Van Nistelrooy, undeterred from taking up the responsibility despite missing his previous 2 penalty kicks. He runs towards the ball, strikes it cleanly, but thumps his shot against the cross bar and the ball rebounds back into play. The Dutchman is later confronted by Keown and Arsenal defense and the rest is history.
This match, termed by the British press as “Battle of Old Trafford”, has remained in the memories of almost every premier league admirer. The final scoreline may suggest that the game was a boring draw, but it was much more than that. Most importantly, for Arsenal, it was the game that shifted the momentum in their favor as they were coming second in EPL at that time. They went on to win the Premier League and did not lose a single league game for the entire season.
Let’s roll the clock by 10 years and this weekend’s fixture between these 2 old rivals looks equally spicy. Arsenal have not had such a brilliant start to any of their previous campaigns in the past decade and are hopeful of winning some silverware after 8 years of drought. Credit must go to the classy Arsene Wenger for sticking to his philosophy of playing attractive football, despite critics questioning his style and ability over the years.
From the players’ point of view, the biggest difference has been the emergence of midfielder Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey, a boyhood Manchester United fan, has shown an eye for goal and has scored more goals in all competitions than any other player in England this season. His performances may remind United faithfuls of Paul Scholes during his early years. The former midfielder had a habit of getting in the penalty box frequently and scored massive number of goals from this position over the years.
Ramsey remains a key for Arsenal for Sunday’s game but the threat from the rest of the Arsenal midfield cannot be ignored. Even though Manchester United have had the better of Arsenal over the past 6-7 years, the lack of Ferguson factor and a dearth of talent in United’s central midfield make it a difficult battle for the red devils.
Manchester United have not enjoyed a great time at home this season and have conceded 5 goals in their previous 3 home games in the league. Arsenal’s attacking capabilities are much better than that of West Brom, Southampton and Stoke City and United’s lackluster defense cannot afford to be careless any longer.
Arsenal would be more than content to walk out of the Theater of Dreams with a draw. But Manchester United cannot afford such a result. Trailing the league leaders by 8 points, the defending champions must reduce this gap down to 5 points or else witness the title slip out of their hands before Christmas.
Going purely by the form and game play of both the teams, it looks fairly difficult for United to get anything out of this game. Still trying to discover their feet under the new manager, Manchester United have not shown cohesiveness in all 3 areas of the team. Unsurprisingly, most of the goals scored by United have come through set-pieces this season.
Manchester United’s discovery of the season – Adnan Januzaj – will most likely start the game on the left wing. He will be joined by Nani, Rooney and Van Persie at the top. But issues for United crop up in the other 2 departments.
Central Midfield – with Michael Carrick still recovering from an injury and Fellaini showing slow learning towards United’s game play, David Moyes will most certainly play Cleverley and Phil Jones in the central midfield. Many critics will not give United even 1% chance after seeing these two against Arsenal’s current set of midfielders.
Defense – Rafael, United’s most improved player last season, suffered a knock against Fulham at Cottage Road and missed the midweek European game at the Basque country, remains a doubt for this game. Chris Smalling has failed to understand full-back’s duties and United have suffered because of that on many occasions this season. Moyes may have no other option but to deploy Antonio Valencia in the right back position. Jonny Evans too continues to be on the sidelines and that would mean a central defense combination of Ferdinand and Vidic – a partnership that Moyes hasn’t favored since United’s game at the Etihad.
Valencia Ferdinand Vidic Evra
Nani Rooney Januzaj
Manchester United will need to produce their best football if they are to beat Arsenal on Sunday. A win looks highly unlikely for the reds. However, 3 points will certainly help calm some nerves at Old Trafford where people are still unsure what lies in the near future for the club and its new manager.
Prediction: Manchester United 1 Arsenal 3
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