Sunday's clash with Manchester United promises to be a harsh reminder for Arsenal fans of their team’s current standing, particularly in comparison to their once fierce rivals.

While the Gunners need a win at the Emirates to maintain their chances of a top four spot, before kick-off the team will be compelled to form a guard of honor for a Manchester United side that has already wrapped-up the Premier League title. To make matters worse, among the players honored will likely be former Arsenal star Robin van Persie.

The Dutch forward was, of course, sold to United last summer in a symbolic deal that not only weakened Arsenal but simultaneously strengthened their competitors.

Except the sad truth for Arsenal is that Manchester United are no longer rivals.

The meetings between the two sides in a seven-year spell either side of the last millennium were more often than not titanic clashes in which the power balance in English football was on the line.

But that has not been the case for some time now. The fact that the relationship of Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson has become cordial to the point where they could discuss a deal for Van Persie last summer reflects, perhaps somewhat a mellowing of the two men, but that mainly Ferguson no longer feels the need to employ his famed mind games on his French counterpart.  

Arsenal -- with Van Persie following in the footsteps of the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Mathieu Flamini in seeking either greater wealth or success, or both, elsewhere -- are now competing on a different level.

There is hope that this summer will finally bring about serious investment in the Arsenal squad, but that will be severely undermined unless they again fulfill what is now their annual target of Champions League qualification.

The return of Van Persie should also highlight what is a key need that needs fulfilling in the transfer market.

Last summer it was hoped that the signings of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski would provide an adequate replacement for Van Persie, but in truth they always looked like players that at best would have complemented last season’s Premier League top scorer.

Podolski has reaffirmed this season that, despite success for Cologne, he is unable to effectively lead the line at the highest level. Even on the left side he has been inconsistent to the point where he hasn’t started a match for over two months.

Giroud has been more of a success and 11 goals in 24 Premier League starts is not a bad return in his debut season. His linkup play has arguably been more impressive than his finishing, but he still is more of a Robert Lewandowski light than a player you would want to be leading the line if you have serious ambitions of chasing major silverware domestically and in Europe.

And against Manchester United on Sunday, Arsenal will not even have Giroud available, through suspension.

That could mean Podolski being given a chance through the middle, or else Theo Walcott or Gervinho. All three have qualities, but they aren’t naturally suited to being the focal point in attack.

Walcott has made the loudest claims to be handed the center-forward role as he looks to emulate Thierry Henry. The harsh truth, though, is that the 24-year-old’s all-round game pales in comparison to the Arsenal legend. Not only does Walcott’s struggles in playing with his back to goal harm the team but his biggest quality, his pace, is all too often wasted.

So, while Van Persie looks certain to be the subject of abuse from at least a proportion of Arsenal fans, his return should also act as symbol for Wenger and the Arsenal board of the work that needs to be done to give the team a chance of once again being the ones receiving a guard of honor.