Arsenal have five league matches remaining and after last weekend’s frustrating north London derby defeat, is there anything but pride left to play for now?
Perhaps slightly harsh but nine league defeats is the Gunners’ worst tally since the 2011/12 campaign (10), when 70 points was miraculously enough to secure a top-three finish.
It’s amazing to see how quickly things change and despite José Mourinho’s pre-match messages of fielding a weakened side, there’s no chance he’d send eleven players out to surrender defeat without a valiant effort at least.
The last time United travelled to the Emirates, a first-half blitz sealed all three points in a sweet victory for Arsenal – the first at home since 2011, coincidentally. So what are the chances of that occurring again this weekend?
Arsène Wenger answered a range of questions during the pre-match presser, offering updated team news and discussing the importance of a result in this fixture.
David Ospina (back) is back to full fitness but first-choice goalkeeper Petr Cech will continue as usual. Shkodran Mustafi (thigh) is a doubt, though returned to normal training earlier in the week whilst midfielder Granit Xhaka (ankle knock) is also unlikely to feature.
When questioned about whether this weekend’s game is as big as it gets for Arsenal’s season he said, “Of course. The problem before [the north London derby] was that the clarity was if we won all our games, we had a good chance of being in the top four. Now, even winning the games doesn’t guarantee us that. It’s not in our hands, that’s all we have to achieve.
“It is a big game. Of course every big game boosts your confidence, but for us more than focusing on the fact it is United, what is important is to have the chance to achieve our target. We have no choice, we have to beat them,” Wenger continued.
A victory would close the gap to just two points on United, who are only one point behind Manchester City. Both have played a game more but fixtures like this are a key reason why Arsenal have struggled to sustain their title challenge [edit LOL] again this term.
On the possibility that Mourinho will field a weaker team, Wenger gave the perfect response. “We focus on our performance, I don’t know what Manchester United will do. We know anyway that they have a massive squad with quality players. Only a top-level performance will get us the win we want.”
It’s unlikely that Wenger will make too many unforced alterations following last weekend’s 2-0 defeat by Tottenham. Francis Coquelin is likely to feature alongside Aaron Ramsey in Xhaka’s absence whilst Mustafi could return as part of the three-man defensive set-up.
The real question is, who will start in attack?
Olivier Giroud has disappointed with his performances recently and really should be given a rest. Theo Walcott’s recent displays have failed to impress so Danny Welbeck could (and should) be in line for a start against his former side.
Possible XI (3-4-2-1): Cech; Gabriel, Koscielny, Mustafi; Ox, Coquelin, Ramsey, Monreal; Alexis, Özil; Welbeck.
United have a number of fitness issues and injuries to contend with ahead of Sunday’s encounter. Ashley Young was forced off with a muscle injury in stoppage time on Thursday, whilst Marcus Rashford was believed to be playing with a knee injury before coming off late on.
Marouane Fellaini continues his red card suspension whilst Luke Shaw (foot), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (shoulder), Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (both knee) are all injured.
It’s likely that Wayne Rooney will start in attack and Mourinho will field a weakened side, especially with next week’s second leg against Celta Vigo to think about.
Paul Pogba deserves a rest and Juan Mata could feature, six weeks after groin surgery.
Possible XI (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Blind, Smalling, Jones, Darmian; Carrick, Herrera; Martial, Lingard, Mkhitaryan; Rooney.