By Richard Clarke
“It's an important match for us because we know that we have to convince people that we can do well in the big games,” said Arsène Wenger ahead of the trip to Manchester United. “We know too that, looking at the title, it’s an important place to make points.
“But people are sceptical about our results anyway so we can go there and play free.
“That’s what I want my team to do - go there and play knowing it will have an influence on the Premier League.
“But it’s not a decider.”
It seems strange that Arsenal travel north looking for a win that will put them three points clear at the top of table – and almost certainly see them leaders at Christmas – but, at the same time, they have yet to be given real credibility in some quarters this season.
Wenger’s side may have their noses in front of Manchester City on goal difference but it is the teams in third and fourth place that are still expected to become the main Premier League protagonists this term.
The English bookmakers suggest Chelsea and Manchester United will continue their duopoly of the title since Arsenal last lifted it in 2004. And the only way the north London side can change that perception quickly is to do something spectacular – like win at Old Trafford.
Wenger’s recent record against those teams is poor - P10 W0 D1 L9 F5 A22. Both this year at Stamford Bridge and last season at Old Trafford, Arsenal secured a moral victory but the home side got the actual three points.
“We came away from Chelsea this season with a lot of frustration thinking they hadn't had many chances and we lost the game,” said Wenger. “But we have had many good results ever since and we have built up a good away record so we go there not under any special pressure but with a huge desire to show that we are ready.
“Manchester United have recent history going for them and, in fairness, they always have big teams. But we have built a team and slowly come up there. Now we have an opportunity to show we are ready for the title.”
At his press conference on Friday, Wenger suggested he would not risk Cesc Fabregas if the midfielder’s hamstring problem had not been properly cured. Gael Clichy seemed on the way back from sickness when he spoke to TV Online the same day and should have regained full strength over the weekend.
He’ll replace Kieran Gibbs, who will be missing for three weeks with an ankle injury. Johan Djourou is fit after missing last week’s win over Partizan Belgrade with a thigh problem. Abou Diaby (ankle) is a possibility for Stoke at the weekend but will not figure on Monday.
Media reports on the morning of the game suggested that keeper Wojciech Szczesny may replace Lukasz Fabianksi who was struggling with a leg injury.
Like Arsenal, Manchester United’s season is a “curate’s egg”. They have looked disjointed on the pitch at times and dispirited for a short while when Wayne Rooney announced he wanted to leave the club. That situation was resolved and, ominously, the England striker could be at his fittest this season for this clash.
Despite all the ups and downs, Manchester United have not lost in the Premier League this season. If they avoid defeat on Monday it would represent the best unbeaten start in the club’s history.
Arsenal have won only 15 of their last 90 League games at Old Trafford but, significantly, Wenger’s three title wins have ridden on the back of big results at Manchester United. Think Overmars 1998, Wiltord 2002 and Van Nistlerooy 2004. The last win came courtesy of Emmanuel Adebayor’s late goal in 2006, since then there has been a nervous 0-0 draw in 2009 that saw Manchester United secure the title. Sandwiching that came a pair of 2-1 defeats in which the visitors had taken the lead.
Arsenal have not scored more than one goal at Old Trafford for 26 years. So with question marks supposedly hanging over Wenger’s defence, the hosts are favourites once more. But the Frenchman sees little to choose between the sides.
“We have won at Manchester United before,” said Wenger. “Last year it was very, very close and I personally think we are in a strong position this time.
“Yes we have been questioned defensively but we can show there that we have the answer. If you look at the League we only conceded two more goals than Manchester United and they have played a game less where they can concede goals.
“So basically defensively we are not conceding more goals than Man United and we score a similar amount. If you look at numbers and facts since the start of the season they are a team that has more draws, we win more games - so that means we go there to win the game.”
Whatever the result on Monday, by the final whistle Arsenal will have played the other occupants of the top four on their own grounds. Assuming they have solved their issues at Emirates, Wenger sees that as a positive down the home stretch of the season.
“I don’t know how significant a win would be because it was later [when we won at Old Trafford in previous seasons],” said Wenger. “One time when we beat them and won the title it was after the Cup Final and one time it was in March and we were on a run. This time it’s very early.
“But it will be an advantage to play all the big teams at home [later]. We know that away from home we need to have one or two positive results against the big teams and then, if we manage to beat them at home, we have a massive advantage.
“So, at the moment, we are in a strong position in the league. We go away for a big game. And we need to win one or two of the big games away from home. That is what is at stake for us.”
In reality, you sense it is a little more than that. Chelsea may be champions but Manchester United are still the biggest scalp when Arsenal are chasing the title.
A win on Monday will give Wenger’s men the clout their league position deserves.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