By Rob Kelly
“We’re strong at home. We’ve learned to be patient and to wait for our chances without losing our shape. That will be vital against Manchester United.” - Arsene Wenger
Arsenal v Manchester United. Wenger v Ferguson. Vieira v Keane. Keown’s roar, Rooney’s tumble, Henry’s masterpiece. Tunnel showdowns, heightened tensions, magical moments - this is the glamour game that has it all, and it’s back.
No matter what the circumstances, it remains a fixture that demands attention. A fixture that leaps off the calendar.
There is no getting away from the fact that this particular clash finds its two protagonists some way off the heights they scaled around the turn of the century. Saturday evening pitches sixth in the table against seventh, with neither side at full strength and both still searching for their best form.
But the Gunners have a point to prove. Having gone into the international break on the back of disappointing results against Anderlecht and Swansea City, this match offers the opportunity to right a few wrongs and make a statement about where they are going as a team. Manchester United remain very much a prized scalp.
The break was kind for Arsenal’s players. Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis Sanchez and Yaya Sanogo all scored for their countries, while Jack Wilshere picked up his fourth successive man-of-the-match award for England. Aaron Ramsey played a key role as Wales claimed a creditable draw in Belgium, while Wojciech Szczesny kept a clean sheet as Poland won in Georgia.
It has gone some way to repairing the damage caused by that defeat at the Liberty Stadium. The next step is to deliver a strong performance in one of the biggest games of the season.
Arsene Wenger has a number selection issues to ponder ahead of this heavyweight tussle. Boosted by the early return of Olivier Giroud and the availability of captain Mikel Arteta, Wenger is sweating over the fitness of Welbeck.
The former Manchester United man has made a good start to life in north London and will be keen to make an impact against the club that oversaw his development. The severity of a hamstring problem sustained in England’s 3-1 win against Scotland will decide his involvement.
Theo Walcott is not expected to feature due to a tight groin, while Laurent Koscielny’s continued absence from the team is likely to mean a seventh straight game at centre back for Nacho Monreal. The Spaniard will have his hands full dealing with a United attack containing Wayne Rooney, who has scored 10 times against the Gunners - the joint-most of any Premier League player.
However, while Wenger is well aware of the defensive issues his side have faced this season, he is confident that an improvement is imminent - especially as they are playing at the Emirates, where Arsenal are unbeaten in 23 Premier League games.
|Arsenal: Koscielny (Achilles), Ospina (thigh), Ozil (knee), Debuchy (ankle), Gibbs Welbeck (doubt - hamstring), Walcott (doubt - groin), Gnabry (match fitness)Man Utd: Rojo (shoulder), Blind (knee), Falcao (calf), Shaw (doubt - hamstring), Rafael (doubt - groin), Young (groin), Jones (calf)|
“We know we can score goals,” he told Arsenal Player. “We concede maybe too many at the moment. It's a little bit contradictory with the observations on numbers, because we are one of the three teams quickest at winning the ball back. We are one of the three teams that allow less penetration into their final third.
“Despite that, I believe the number of goals conceded is higher than expected. That's basically because we had some weaknesses, especially in the air, that we have paid for.
“But we are strong at home. We have learned to be patient and to wait for our chances without losing our shape. That will be vital against Manchester United.
“We have a good dynamic in our team. We have a lively game and that of course pays off. I'm convinced that this team can do great, and of course the home form is very important for that. We know that we can make results away from home, so let's keep our home form going and transform the few draws we have had into wins.”
The stats don’t make comfortable reading for those of an Arsenal persuasion when it comes to recent games against Man United. The Gunners have only won once in their last 14 matches against their rivals, in 2011 when Aaron Ramsey scored the only goal of the game at Emirates Stadium.
However, this is a United side in the midst of a transition under Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman had initially asked to be judged after three months, but following a challenging opening to his maiden Premier League campaign he admitted that this may be the toughest job of his long and distinguished career.
The Red Devils have their own share of fitness issues with Daley Blind among those ruled out, but goalkeeper David de Gea and the influential Angel Di Maria are expected to make Saturday’s game.
Despite some indifferent results, Wenger expects a fierce challenge from United - especially as Van Gaal will be just as desperate for his side to respond to recent setbacks.
“He has enough competence to deal with the problems that you face when you go into a new job,” Wenger said. “I think as well that they have the quality of the players [to turn things around]. They have world-class players, so that will not take too long.
“When you play against Manchester United, you always know that you face an opposition with quality. We've seen with Rooney again this week that he is coming into good form. It's always a special game.”
This is another huge week for the club, with games against Borussia Dortmund and West Bromwich Albion following Saturday’s showpiece - and it is imperative to get off to a strong start.
Despite the disappointment in south Wales, there is a quiet confidence emanating from the Arsenal players. The international break enforced a period of reflection for some, but for others it has been a positive distraction that has helped the squad regroup.
"We are not far away from getting everyone available and therefore I think it’s down to results now and consistency"
The form that many of Arsenal's internationals displayed in the past week or so proves that the talent is there. A game against Man United should be the perfect stage to mount a revival.
“We looked at our players on international duty, because they needed a break after Swansea, and they got some positive results,” Wenger concluded. “We had six players away with England. All of them came back feeling positive because they had good results.
“Of course [the Swansea result] was difficult to take. But I think the best way is to get it behind us now and focus on what is in front of us.
“I think we can be very strong. We have nearly all of our squad back. We are not far away from getting everyone available and therefore I think it’s down to results now and consistency. Our attitude and focus is good - it’s just about finding the right mixture of attacking, which we love to do as a team, and being tight at the back.”
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