The rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United may not be as fierce as it once was, but the fixture between these Premier League giants remains one of the highlights of the football calendar.
The two may not have a duopoly on the Premier League title anymore - as was the case between 1996 and 2004, when the trophy travelled only between Old Trafford and Highbury, the then-home of Arsenal - but with no side really staking a completely convincing challenge for this year’s title as of yet, both Arsenal and Manchester United will fancy themselves at having an outside chance.
Sunday's contest will have a top-of-the-table feel to it again, a rare occurrence these days, with the Gunners just three points behind league leaders United.
The beginning of a big month for United
Despite sitting at the top of the table after seven games played, Manchester United are still considered outsiders for winning the title this season. Even manager Louis van Gaal conceded that this season may be a year too early for United’s title chances, but that will not stop the Red Devils from pushing until the very end.
A lot will be learnt about Manchester United’s title credentials in the next month, with trips to Goodison Park and Selhurst Park after Sunday’s clash at The Emirates, as well as hosting Manchester City in the derby on October 25th.
Van Gaal’s side will go into the game brimming with confidence, off the back of four consecutive victories in all competitions, the latest of which was their midweek Champions League triumph over Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg. In stark contrast, alarm bells are once again ringing at The Emirates for Arsene Wenger. Their calamitous defeat to Olympiakos on Tuesday night has made an exit at the group stage of the Champions League - something that has never happened before under Wenger - a real possibility for Arsenal.
Michael Carrick has been deemed fit by Manchester United’s medical team to feature at The Emirates, after a “minor knock” kept the midfielder out of United’s midweek victory over Wolfsburg. However, the forecast does not look so good for fellow midfielder Ander Herrera, who also sat out on Wednesday, with the Spaniard not expected to be passed fit for Sunday’s clash. Marcos Rojo (hamstring) also remains doubtful, whilst Luke Shaw (broken leg) is the only other absentee for Louis van Gaal to worry about.
One dilemma for van Gaal to mull over is who to play as full-backs. With Shaw, and most likely Rojo, sidelined, Matteo Darmian is expected to continue in the left back role he has filled for United’s last two games. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, natural wingers by trade, are expected to battle it out for starting in the right back berth.
Arsenal will be without key defender Laurent Koscielny (hamstring) after the Frenchman picked up an injury in midweek. He joins Mathieu Flamini (hamstring) and Mikel Arteta (dead leg) on the physio table, who will both also miss out on Sunday. Long-term absentees for Wenger also include Jack Wilshere (ankle), Tomas Rosicky (knee) and Danny Welbeck (knee).
On a more positive note, Francis Coquelin is expected to be fit after sitting out against Leicester and Olympiakos, whilst Oliver Giroud will return to the squad following his Champions League suspension. Petr Cech is set to return between the sticks, despite Wenger’s very public backing of Ospina following his howler in midweek.
The pressure seems to be getting to the experienced French manager, and after repeatedly being questioned about his decision to drop Petr Cech for David Ospina on Tuesday, Wenger replied “I think you lack a bit creativity in the press, you all follow a bandwagon that is very, very, very, very boring. Stop that story, or we stop the press conference. If you question Ospina, I question your knowledge of football.”
His counterpart at Old Trafford was more measured during his pre-match press conference, describing Wenger’s side as “technically and tactically the best team in the league”.
Manchester United are somewhat a bogey side for the Gunners, and their win percentage of 24% against the Red Devils in the Premier League is their lowest against any team in the competition. Arsenal’s poor form at The Emirates this season - with just one win in four in all competitions - will hardly raise morale in the home dressing room.
One to Watch
Juan Mata - The Spanish playmaker has been in outstanding form for the Red Devils, scoring three and assisting two in his last five Premier League outings. His excellent season continued on Wednesday with yet another goal, netting from the spot against Wolfsburg, but it was topped by his majestical assist, a perfectly weighted back-heeled flick over the top of the Wolfsburg defence for Chris Smalling to finish. With Wayne Rooney struggling to make an impact in his #10 role, huge emphasis will fall onto Mata to be United’s main creative threat.