The much criticised Monday night meeting of old foes is all but upon us. At the point at which Manchester United’s number was followed out of the drum by Arsenal’s I found myself having a strange reaction. I hissed a very audible “yes”. After all, on our last trip to Manchester had we not finally found the formula to beat a major rival, the champions no less, in their own back yard? It felt as though it was our fate to follow that up at Old Trafford with our first win there in eight and a half years.
Ten days later Monaco turned up at the Grove, one of the easier draws in the last sixteen of the Champions League, and all but humiliated a lacklustre Arsenal. The prospect of advancing to the semi-finals of the FA Cup looked a distant prospect in the days that followed. The ship has been steadied again though with victories against Everton and Queens Park Rangers, not in themselves as strong as Louis van Gaal’s charges, but important in terms of restoring confidence.
The team news is mixed. Gabriel will miss the next few matches with a hamstring injury, and there were late tests planned for Wojciech Szczesny, Nacho Monreal, and Mathieu Flamini. The fact that the former duo appear in photographs of Sunday’s training session suggests they, at least, will be back in the fold. Both would be in my preferred starting line-up, along with Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker, and Laurent Koscielny.
Far more interesting will be who Arsene goes with in midfield alongside and ahead of the masked Francis Coquelin. There is a case for restoring Aaron Ramsey, perhaps more used to the role that Santi Cazorla has performed in his absence, but that would then mean a decision between Santi and Mesut Ozil in the role of creator-in-chief. This selection will give a clear indication of our intent. Do we go for the ultra cautious style that was so successful in the blue half of the city? Or is it gung-ho Gunners and hope we deal with their counter-attacking style better than we have done in recent memory.
As he has not featured much of late I think we can rule Theo Walcott out of contention for a start. Alexis will surely patrol the right flank, but there is an interesting choice between Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left, with Ozil in the equation should Ramsey start further back. Olivier Giroud must start, his personal Monaco nightmare put well and truly behind him in the last two matches.
United will be missing ‘Spit’ Evans at the back and Robin van Stapleton up front. On the evidence of current form it is probably fair to say they may be a little stronger as a result. Luke Shaw also faces a late fitness test to determine the extent of his involvement in the tie.
The ‘holic Pound
Determining the object of the ‘holic pound has been harder than usual, and made so by United’s obvious grinding out of results despite not playing well at all this season. Typical was their win at the Grove in November when they had one shot on target and yet won the match 1-2. Should their fortune continue then we face an uphill struggle, and yet there is something in the air. A belief, maybe born out of a misguided sense of hope, that we will do to them what they have done to us so many times.
The blueprint was established at the Etihad. Defend deep, close the man on ball voraciously, hunt on the counter with pace and accuracy of distribution. Invite United on to us as they have have done in reverse so many times. This is the match I am playing in my imagination, and which persuades me that the scoreline which will clinch a hat-trick of ‘holic pounds is 1-2 to the Arsenal, available at a tempting 10/1 with Paddy Power. In a strange win market both teams are odds against. United available at 6/4 while Arsenal are around 2/1. You wouldn’t have got positive odds on United to beat us at Old Trafford in many a year.
To those of you joining the 8600 traveling Gooners I wish you a night to remember. A very fine gentleman offered me a wonderful opportunity to be with you but a big few days at work require me not to fall asleep at my desk on Tuesday. Let’s hope the team can deliver that which is long overdue.
Art of Football Titi Tee Winner
Congratulations to Chris Athanasi who was among those of you who remembered that Edu and Sylvain Wiltord scored the goals by which we beat United 0-2 at Old Trafford in the FA Cup in 2002/3.
Chris wins a teeshirt featuring Thierry Henry’s classic strike against United in October 2000. For those unlucky in the competition we also have a 10% discount code on any design from them, just enter WENGER when prompted on the order screen.
So, congratulations to Chris. I have forwarded your details to Art of Football who will be in touch. Thanks to them for a great prize, and to all of you who entered.