Manchester United and Arsenal are evenly matched this season – both in the league table, and in head-to-head confrontations.In the battle for third place, Arsenal are two points ahead of United – although have a game in hand, at home to Sunderland in midweek.
On the pitch, United won 2-1 at the Emirates in November, despite Arsenal dominating for the majority, while Arsenal won 2-1 at Old Trafford in the recent FA Cup quarter-final. There’s little to choose between them.
Both managers were unable to field their best starting XI earlier in the season, but their selections have now settled down. Louis van Gaal has long since ditched a three-man defence and now uses a 4-3-3 formation, and the only question marks here involve injuries.
Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw and Wayne Rooney all departed during last weekend’s narrow 2-1 win at Crystal Palace, although all three are expected to be available here. Angel Di Maria and Robin van Persie weren’t in the squad last weekend but might return – but along with Radamel Falcao, who was unimpressive in a second-half substitute appearance at Selhurst Park, probably won’t find their way into the starting XI.
Rooney will start alone upfront with support from Marouane Fellaini in his peculiar central midfielder / target man role, with Ander Herrera in midfield. Ashley Young and Juan Mata will start on the flanks.
Arsene Wenger has named the same starting XI for four league matches in a row for the first time as Arsenal manager, but following a limp performance and a disappointing 1-0 defeat at home to Swansea, he might consider making a couple of changes.
Still, injury problems means it’s difficult to work out what he’ll change. Aaron Ramsey, who has been playing out of position on the right flank, has missed training this week, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – who gave Shaw a roasting in the FA Cup tie – is absent. Could Theo Walcott get a rare start, or might Jack Wilshere be fielded on the right of midfield, where he’s appeared as a substitute in Arsenal’s last two games?
Meanwhile, while Olivier Giroud is looking a little tired, Danny Welbeck is another doubt. He scored the winner at Old Trafford in that quarter-final and Wenger might have liked his pace in behind the opposition. Mathieu Debuchy and Mikel Arteta are also set to be unavailable.
In the FA Cup tie, the play all came down the same side. Antonio Valencia darted forward to combine well with Angel Di Maria, but the Argentine failed to get through his defensive responsibilities which meant the combination of Alexis Sanchez and Nacho Monreal often overloaded Valencia, who struggled.
Monreal has a habit of performing well in big away games, and while Mata will offer a different challenge to Di Maria, a good performance from the left-back might be crucial in Arsenal gaining the upper hand down that side. Santi Cazorla will also be broadly in this zone against Herrera – giving a very Spanish feel to this battle.
On the opposite side, Ramsey will play narrow and attempt to get beyond Giroud, and there’s a chance young Hector Bellerin will be exposed to Young’s dribbling. The winger was on fire against Crystal Palace last weekend, and while the Spanish right-back has yet to be embarrassed by any individual opponent so far this season, this might be a big test.
Elsewhere, there will be an interesting battle between Blind and Mesut Ozil – Blind struggled in the recent FA Cup game, although Ozil has a habit of allowing his opponents too much time on the ball rather than pressing keenly. It will also be interesting to see how Francis Coquelin, so impressive since coming into the Arsenal side midway through the season, copes with Fellaini’s sheer power.
The matches between these two this season have been intense contrasts featuring three goals, but I think this will be a calmer game, with fewer goalscoring opportunities. Both sides have been off the pace over the past couple of weeks, and this could peter out into something underwhelming.