By Declan Taylor
After defeats against Fulham, Hull and Stoke, perhaps a clash with the European and English champions would not appeal to Arsène Wenger’s men. However, if there is one way to draw a line under the misgivings of the last few weeks, it is by beating Manchester United.
Enthralling title battles between the pair have created quite a rivalry since Wenger’s arrival in 1996 but there is nothing to choose between the sides in that spell. Of the 36 games, the sides have triumphed 14 times each with Man United eclipsing Arsenal’s 44 goals by one solitary strike - although Ferguson's side are yet to win at Emirates Stadium.
The Red Devils have not been firing on all cylinders just yet this season but a string of solid victories, and a fit and firing Cristiano Ronaldo, have rocketed United into third place. We spoke to Stuart Mathieson of the Manchester Evening News to get a more local perspective on Saturday’s opponents.
THE STORY SO FAR
“I think there was a few factors for their slow start. They had the Super Cup Final in Monaco against Zenit St. Petersburg and they had a few injuries as well. Obviously Ronaldo was out and they hadn’t at that point signed Dimitar Berbatov so they were in need of another striker. People were still finding their feet and there had been a few absentees because of Euro 2008, that is something that seems to effect United a lot. One season when they really stormed out of the blocks aside, United are generally quite slow starters. It can be a combination of things and they all sound like excuses really, but I would call them reasons.
“Fortunately they didn’t fall too far behind and they all kept comfort in themselves thinking that it was virtually exactly what happened last season. There was no panic or anything but they felt that they needed to get going and Sir Alex Ferguson pinpointed October as the month where they would start to do that. That has proved to be the case.”
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
“They have shaken off that early season rust. Lets be honest, United came into the season facing their first three away matches at Portsmouth, Liverpool and Chelsea. They are not games you would cherry-pick for your start.
“People may say that they lost at Liverpool and drew at Chelsea, but they got the same amount of points we got last season in those games. Although they came at a different time, we still got them over the course of the season. The toughness of those three away matches was difficult when you’re still finding your feet. Once they were out of the way it was a psychological weight off their backs and they had a few, not easier, but home matches; the likes of Bolton, West Brom and West Ham. I just think they saw that next set of matches as a little bit easier and I think psychologically it helped them enormously."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
“Cristiano Ronaldo was without a shadow of a doubt United’s best player last season and there is a strong argument that without him they certainly wouldn’t have won the double. They might have won one of them and they would’ve come close in both but he was certainly the deciding factor last season.
“When he came into this season with the ankle surgery and all the Real Madrid summer saga to get over we saw a bit of a hangover from him. He did score three goals in those early matches but he wasn’t at his best. If he had six gears we have seen about four and ready to move into five. He’s got two goals against West Ham, two goals against Hull City and he looked the part against Celtic in the Champions League. Who wouldn’t benefit from having a player like that in top form?
"I don’t think there will be anything happening in January. It has been an incredible saga but he hasn’t helped himself because he wouldn’t put it to bed because he wanted to try and go to Spain. Once it was made clear we wouldn’t sell there was nothing Real Madrid could do and it probably took a little getting over in his head.
"It affected how the fans viewed him without a doubt. When you are a hardcore Mancunian it is hard to swallow when someone wants to leave your club, it’s the same for Arsenal fans. Apart from a sunnier climate what else can another club give Cristiano Ronaldo?”
“Dimitar Berbatov brings a serenity and a tranquillity to side. We all knew before he arrived that he wasn’t going to roll up his sleeves and work for 90 minutes, that’s not him. It was the same for Eric Cantona but the crowd loved him. There is no doubt that Berbatov has added a new dimension to the way United play, and if he can do that to the European champions then he has an awful lot going for him.
“He sees things that other players don’t see and he has struck up a great relationship with Wayne Rooney. You give him the ball and he could control it in a telephone box and work his way out of it with three defenders around him. We do make these comparisons with Cantona and it is hard not to because he is a modern Cantona in many ways.
“A lot of Rooney’s form has been down to Berbatov without a shadow of a doubt. Berbatov can hold the ball up which gives Rooney the chance to run off him. He can see a pass and deliver it and Rooney is an intelligent player who can run off a ball and make space for himself so it is a great combination.“
“It is difficult to second guess Ferguson. He did pull a few surprises against Celtic, one being that he didn’t play Rooney or Berbatov considering they had scored all United’s European goals this season. It will be a strong side though, Gary Neville will be out and Edwin van der Sar was left out against Celtic but he should return and Anderson will probably be back too. Injury wise there is only Owen Hargeaves who is long term. They will be at pretty much full strength - Hargreaves and of course Paul Scholes aside.
“When you have Ronaldo, Giggs, Rooney or Berbatov it would be criminal not to try and attack to be honest, it would be wasting that kind of talent. Yes they do defend very well indeed. They might hit on the break and counter attack but United certainly wont have a gameplan to be defensive. They attack, that is how they play. It is better to take on Arsenal by attacking them so you can expect United to go full-tilt at the Emirates."
THE EMIRATES EFFECT
“This fixture has built up quite a bit of history over the last decade or more. Some of it not all that palatable but it has brought a rawness to many of the games. There has always been a fantastic thread of individuality and great footballers and quality play in amongst it all. It very much made the perfect game at the Emirates in a lot of ways.
“I don’t think it is quite as ready to explode as when Vieria and Keane were having a go at each other but there is no doubt it is one that you ring on the calendar and look forward to.”
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
“I think someone will fall by the wayside in the title race by May. The way Arsenal play you can’t see this blip going on for much longer. I love to see Arsenal play because I think they are a wonderful side so I can’t see them dropping out of it. I'm sure all of the teams will have their little moments where they dip below and possibly Arsenal have had theirs.
“I’ve got it down as a 1-1 and that is probably a very popular score line as it will be close. We know that Arsenal have had a rough three games and picked up criticism that they are probably not used to but talking to United players after the Celtic game, they are all aware that Arsenal will take the criticism on board and you have to watch out for a backlash.
“They’ve been accused of lacking a bit of spine but the United players certainly don’t see it that way. What better way to get back into the groove and face the detractors than giving Manchester United a run for their money."Copyright 2013 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 7 Nov 2008