It may not have the prestige of old, but both Arsenal and Manchester United can ill afford to lose Saturday’s meeting of the two traditional Premier League powers at the Emirates Stadium. For the teams that have won 16 of the 22 titles in the Premier League era, a championship challenge this season is increasingly looking more optimistic than realistic, but garnering some momentum to propel their campaigns forward is urgently required.
For Arsenal, a loss against a team they have beaten just once in their last 14 meetings could well lead to serious dissension among the Emirates faithful once more. Before the international break, Arsenal all-but surrendered a chance of topping their Champions League group by tossing away a 3-0 lead at home to Anderlecht, and were then beaten by Swansea City to fall to sixth place in the Premier League, 12 points behind runaway leaders Chelsea.
A big reason for those struggles has been a thin defense weakened by injuries to Laurent Koscielny and Mathieu Debuchy. There is little respite in store, with the French duo set to be out for around another month at least, meaning inexperienced teenager Calum Chambers remaining at right-back and Nacho Monreal continuing to perform an unconvincing impression of a center-back.
“We lost two players with experience, Debuchy and Koscielny,” Wenger said at his press conference on Friday. “But I think as a unit I want to give credit to my team for defending well, because we are in the top two teams in speed of winning the ball back. We are the team who allows the opposing team to get into our final less than anybody else teams, but where we have to be more clinical is in the chances we give away. We give very few away, but we have to be a bit more clinical with that.”
Arsenal have far more options going forward, including the in-form Alexis Sánchez, who has six goals in his last four appearances. However, they will have to do without Theo Walcott, whose comeback has been stalled by a groin injury, while Danny Welbeck may miss the opportunity to face his former club. The England forward, signed from Manchester United on transfer deadline day in September, picked up a hamstring injury on international duty and remains a doubt. Arsenal can take solace from Olivier Giroud being back in contention for a place in the squad ahead of schedule. Mikel Arteta is also fit again.
In a frustratingly familiar theme for Louis van Gaal, Manchester United’s buildup to a match has again been dominated by injury issues. Having been forced to continually rotate his defense since taking charge in the summer, Van Gaal has now lost the versatile Daley Blind to a knee injury. The only silver lining is that fears Blind could miss the rest of the season with a knee problem suffered while with the Netherlands appear to have been misguided.
“Blind is not ready to play,” Van Gaal confirmed at his pre-match press conference. “He has now a brace on his knee, 10 days' rest, then we have to make another scan and we can say more about his injury. It's not so bad as the doctors were thinking after the match, but it shall be a long story, I believe, but not six months or something.”
Van Gaal will also continue to be without Radamel Falcao, Marcos Rojo and Rafael, but will be relieved that knocks picked up while on international duty by Angel di Maria, David de Gea, Michael Carrick look unlikely to keep them out of the trip to the Emirates.
Having gone three matches without a victory, albeit including encouraging performances against Chelsea and Manchester City, United got back to winning ways against Crystal Palace before the break. They now sit a point and a place behind Arsenal as they seek a return to the top four this season.
Prediction: With Manchester United set to field a defense ravaged by injury, behind a midfield missing the calming influence of Blind, the duo of Sanchez and Welbeck, if fit, should prosper. However, Di Maria, Wayne Rooney and former Gunner Robin van Persie will fancy their chances of doing likewise at the other end against an unconvincing Arsenal backline. A third consecutive draw between these sides at the Emirates could be on the cards.
Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United
Kickoff time: 12.30 p.m. EST
TV channel: NBC
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra