By Richard Clarke
Arsenal v Manchester United is back.
This fixture defined the early Noughties but began losing a little lustre in the latter part of the decade as Arsène Wenger’s side failed to keep up with the pacesetters in the title race.
However Arsenal are real contenders for the crown this term and are in the middle of a four-game run that may offer proper definition to muscles they have flexed since losing to Chelsea on the last day of November.
The draw at Aston Villa on Wednesday saw them drop to third in the table but a victory on Sunday at Emirates Stadium, followed by another at Stamford Bridge a week later, would make them sterling candidates to win their first title since 2004.
In keeping with the retro feel, Sol Campbell is set for his first Premier League start for Arsenal in almost four years and even an excited Arsène Wenger was harking back to yesteryear when he spoke at his pre-match press conference.
“We are very close in the League and so it is back to an Arsenal versus Manchester United of old,” said the manager.
“Last year we were out of it and the games had less meaning. Yes two years ago it was a big game but what is different this year is that we are on the way up so it is very interesting. It comes at a good moment for us.
“Over the years, Manchester United and Arsenal have had some tough games, and sometimes they were not easy on the physical side. But both teams always tried to play. It was very rarely a boring match.
“For me it is always one of the games of the season and so we are really up for it. We are on a good run and we have a good momentum. We want to continue that.
“And I always look forward to this match because it is one that promises good football.”
Campbell’s inclusion depends on the recovery of Thomas Vermaelen. When the Belgian left the field after 35 minutes of the game at Villa Park, it was the first time his partnership with William Gallas had been broken up in the Premier League this season. Fears that Vermaelen’s leg was broken proved false and, though his injury is thankfully short-term, he is a major doubt for Sunday. Every effort will be made to fast-track his recovery.
Emmanuel Eboue and Alex Song are back with the Club after the Africa Cup of Nations but their fatigue will be a factor in Wenger’s thinking.
On Friday, Wenger said: “We will assess Song today. He was in yesterday morning but he had travelled all night so we just checked him and sent him home. He had not slept all night.”
Eduardo is out after collecting a hamstring injury at Villa while Nicklas Bendtner, his replacement on the night, is struggling for fitness after just returning from three months out. Samir Nasri, a substitute in midweek, is pushing for a start while Carlos Vela has a knee problem.
Arsenal have been the form team in the Premier League for two months. Since that loss to Chelsea they have taken 24 points from 10 games. Manchester United’s 13 points from five is hardly shabby and, in that period, Wayne Rooney has scored seven goals. However, interestingly, they have struggled in recent years when visiting ‘Big Four’ opponents, taking one point from a possible 18.
There is a general perception that this Manchester United is not quite the ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’ vintage that seemed so imperious a couple of years ago. However, they are second in the table, through in the Champions League and won a notable local battle to reach the Carling Cup Final in midweek.
“I wouldn’t speculate too much on any weakness of Man United,” remarked Wenger. “Let us focus on our strengths and show that we have made a big improvement compared to last year.
“At Villa we got away and maybe we were a bit frustrated with the 0-0 but Villa have beaten everybody in the League apart from us. They have beaten Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool – everybody.
“We got four points from Villa this season so I believe we have made big, big strides forward and it is a good opportunity on Sunday to show that.
“It was our dream to be in this position at this time of the season. Now we know that to be successful in this [four-game] period [we must] be more a team than the other teams. We have to think how strong and how much solidarity it takes to get through a period like this.
“However no matter what happens after these games we will still be in a position where we will have a chance but we can put ourselves in a very strong position and that is what we want.
“The first hurdle demanded a lot of commitment from us and we must be capable to repeat this kind of commitment.”
Too true. Arsenal have fought tooth and nail to grab themselves a piece of the title race. They thoroughly deserve this showcase game for the character they have shown in the past two months.
However winning the opportunity to battle for the title is miles away from actually finishing up champions.
That process started in midweek but the pressure will be cranked up in the next ten days.
Crunch time has truly arrived.Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source