By Rob Kelly
“It is a special game because of the history, because of the size of the two clubs, because of the quality of the teams and because of what is at stake on Monday night. We know it will be down to workrate and solidarity again.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
Even after all these years, Manchester United v Arsenal remains a fixture that leaps off the page, a game that sends pulses racing, a face-off that consistently delivers drama.
It may not be the world title fight of old, but it remains a heavyweight contest that has had more than its fair share of knockout blows. When you throw the FA Cup into the mix, it only adds to an already incendiary mix.
The Gunners will head north with an air of quiet confidence. Despite an unenviable record at Old Trafford, they have won 10 of their past 12 matches in all competitions and were victorious the last time they were in Manchester - beating City 2-0 at the Etihad in January.
“It was a huge lift for the players to get that off our shoulders and go out and win a game of that stature,” Arsene Wenger told Arsenal Player. “We go back to Manchester [so] let’s repeat the same.
“It is a special game because of the history, because of the size of the two clubs, because of the quality of the teams and because of what is at stake on Monday night.
“We want to go to Manchester United and [reach the semi-finals] and we want to focus to achieve it. We know that it will be down to workrate and solidarity again.”
Having seen his team deliver a robust response to their Champions League defeat to Monaco, Wenger must be tempted to stick to the core of the side that picked up six points in the space of four days.
However, there are a number of selection battles emerging within the squad - and it's getting the best out of the players involved. Take Kieran Gibbs - the England international is being pushed hard by Nacho Monreal, but with the Spaniard facing a late test on a back injury, Gibbs may well start his third successive match.
“You always benefit from the competition if you’re mentally strong,” Wenger said. “You can use it as well to become mentally stronger and that’s what [Gibbs and Monreal] do well. You have to take every competition with partners as a challenge.
"You have to take every competition with partners as a challenge"
“Certainly both of them have done very well and that sometimes makes my decisions difficult on that front, because Nacho has done very well and Kieran is doing very well too. He played in recent games and, for example at Queens Park Rangers, he was very influential.”
There is also a decision to be made in goal, where the manager has traditionally rotated in the FA Cup. David Ospina - having started in the third round - now has the gloves in the Premier League and the Champions League, but Wojciech Szczesny is waiting in the wings for his opportunity.
The Poland international missed the trip to QPR on Wednesday through illness, but Wenger is confident he will be available at Old Trafford as he bids to win back his place in the team.
“He’s responded very well and it’s a bit like the situation with Gibbs and Monreal,” the manager said. “It’s a tight competition - we have three goalkeepers who are top class and all close to each other. He works very hard in training and, if available, he will play on Monday night. His talent will allow him to come back.”
The only definite absence - other than Mathieu Debuchy, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere - will be Gabriel, who sustained a hamstring injury at Loftus Road that will keep him for “two to three weeks”.
Arsenal can be optimistic ahead of their trip to Old Trafford but they will be well aware of the threat Manchester United pose.
For all the criticism levelled at them this season, Louis van Gaal’s side have only lost twice in 22 games and in Wayne Rooney they have a striker who loves to score against the Gunners.
"We want to go back to Wembley and this is a good opportunity to do it. It’s highly motivating as we are the holders of the cup"
The home side also have the stats in their favour, having won nine of their last 10 home matches against Wenger’s side. Yet Arsenal have the bit between their teeth and are determined to make amends for November’s game at Emirates Stadium, where they dominated but somehow lost 2-1.
“I believe that we produced the performance on the day that we wanted to, but we didn’t get the result,” the manager said. “I think the result was down to defensive fragility and not the offensive performance. That’s what we want to put right on Monday.
“Cup games are always difficult to predict. Both teams will go for it and whoever scores first will decide what kind of game it will be.”
For all the pre-match talk of Arsenal’s previous struggles at Old Trafford, Wenger clearly subscribes to the ‘past is a foreign island’ theory.
He has stressed his belief in his side and insists that quality is the only true arbiter on the night. He does not accept that Man United have a psychological hold over his team, and instead emphasises the “opportunity” they must grasp.
“At the moment we are doing very well away from home [and] it’s just down to how much we turn up and how much effort we put in to win the game,” he said.
“Yes, we didn’t produce the results [at Old Trafford] recently but I don’t believe too much in history. I believe in the performance on the day. We are on a good run, we have confidence so let’s put the performance in.
“We want to go back to Wembley and this is a good opportunity to do it. It’s highly motivating as we are the holders of the cup.”
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