What just a week ago looked set to be a relatively meaningless duel between two of England’s fiercest rivals in the Premier League era has now been given added significance. While Arsenal have secured a place in the top four and Manchester United have effectively done likewise, Arsenal’s defeat to Swansea on Monday night means the two teams are still locked in a battle to avoid a potentially perilous qualifier in order to reach the lucrative Champions League group phase.
For Arsenal navigating that tricky route into Europe’s premier competition has become a regular occurrence in recent years, but it would now be a massive disappointment were they not to make the top three this time around. Arsene Wenger’s side had gone 10 matches and three months unbeaten, setting the benchmark as the top performing team in 2015, before going down at home to Swansea courtesy of Bafetimbi Gomis’ late goal.
They now have little time to pick themselves up before what could be a vital visit to Old Trafford. While Arsenal still hold a two-point advantage over United with the luxury of a game in hand, a second-straight defeat would deal a significant blow.
And it would certainly revive Manchester United’s hopes of claiming the top three spot that had been earmarked as the objective at the start of Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge. It has very much been a topsy-turvy campaign in terms of performances, if not always results, for the Old Trafford club. Consistency has been hard to find, and only truly arrived in a four-game spell between March and April that saw them beat rivals Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City to close in on a return to the Champions League.
But just as it looked like Van Gaal had found a recipe for success, injuries that have blighted the team all season resurfaced to highlight the fragility of the squad. Three straight defeats followed to allow Liverpool back into contention for a top-four spot before a nervy 2-1 win at Crystal Palace last week shut the door once more.
There remains a sense of Manchester United edging over the line before Van Gaal can build the squad he really wants and needs in order to mount a serious challenge next season. Memphis Depay has already arrived for big money from PSV Eindhoven and several more significant signings are expected to follow in short order. One of the areas Van Gaal has already revealed he will look to strengthen is in the position where Michael Carrick’s injury has left such a void since that thrilling triumph over Manchester City.
A lack of options up front has also been exposed when Wayne Rooney has been forced back into midfield or like last week when he had to go off injured. There is a growing sense that neither Radamel Falcao nor Robin van Persie, both formerly great strikers but seemingly in irrevocable decline, will be at the club next season.
One of United’s lowest points this campaign came against Arsenal in a home defeat to the Gunners in the FA Cup quarterfinals in March. And, although, Arsenal could be missing the man who scored the winner that evening -- former Old Trafford striker Danny Welbeck -- they have the benefit of a settled lineup. In particular, the linkup between Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil has given Arsenal an often decisive quality in attacking areas.
That FA Cup win, though, was only Arsenal’s second victory over Manchester United in the last 16 meetings between the teams who regularly fought it out for the Premier League title at the turn of the century. And, while United may not still have the same psychological hold over their rivals of years past, Marouane Fellaini could relish going up against an Arsenal team that still lacks the physical stature of those in the United lineup. Advantage in the battle for third should, though, remain with Arsenal.
Prediction: Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal
G: De Gea
D: Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Shaw
Mata, Herrera, Fellaini, Young
D: Bellerín, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal
M: Coquelin, Cazorla
Ramsey, Özil, Sánchez