Arsenal host Manchester United on Sunday in what is surely a must-win game for both sides if they want to qualify for the Champions League next season.
The mood at Old Trafford is surely at its highest in recent memory after the Red Devils did the unthinkable in coming back from their first leg loss to PSG to progress to the Champions League last eight; Arsenal, meanwhile, fell to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Rennes on Thursday night.
The clash promises goals and, despite form indicating that United are the favourites, it will be anyone’s game. Speculating ahead of these heavyweight ties is often difficult as both teams are certainly capable of taking all three points – Football Fancast’s Arsenal apologist Will Jones and the TT’s resident Chelsea fan Alex Rigby are going to do their best, though.
Below they offer their predictions ahead of the huge game…
Both sides have been hit with lots of injuries this season but who do you think has had it worse?
Alex: “Probably not so much about who’s had it worse as who’s dealt with it better. Manchester United have shown these past few weeks that they’ve got the quality and guile to pull through anything, whereas Arsenal have been falling down with a fight. “
Will: “We’re missing some key men in Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Danny Welbeck, but when you look at the sheer number of first team stars that Manchester United had to cope without in their clash with PSG it’s hard to argue that injuries aren’t hitting them harder at the minute.
“The problem for Arsenal is that the Red Devils have a squad better equipped to cope with such a crisis, whereas Unai Emery is having to play Shkodran Mustafi at right-back when, of course, he probably shouldn’t be a professional footballer at all.”
Indeed, Bellerin’s non-appearance in particular has surely cost Arsenal in recent weeks – the Spaniard offers crucial width to the Gunners’ attack. Emery’s list of wounded might be few but the absences are still notable, particularly when, as Will says, an error-prone Mustafi is deployed on the right of defence in Bellerin’s stead.
At the other end of the spectrum, United’s injury list stretches into double figures – Solskjaer was without a number of big names on Wednesday, including Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.
Fortunately for the Red Devils, though, they have unbelievable strength in depth and, with Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford firing on all cylinders, they have been able to get results regardless.
Who should start up front in this game and why? Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette?
Will: “Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is our top scorer and one of the most natural goal-getters in English football. However, he’s not himself at the minute. The late penalty miss against Spurs looks to have battered his confidence.
“The manager now has a tough call to make – does he play Aubameyang through this sticky patch or turn to Alexandre Lacazette? Personally, I’d opt for the Frenchman, and plan to bring on Aubameyang’s pace in the second half to stretch the tired opposition defence “
Alex: “Lacazette. Big game player who’s done tremendously well when he’s needed most.”
Few managers in the Premier League can attest to having two fantastic strikers to choose from – Emery can though. The Spaniard has ummed and ahhed between the two hitmen all season and both offer so much to the Gunners attack.
Aubameyang hit the ground running after signing from Borussia Dortmund and recently broke the record for the fastest Arsenal player to reach 25 Premier League goals, achieving the feat in just 37 games. Lacazette, however, took a little longer to get going but has now proved himself to be, as Alex says, a big game player.
The Gabonese forward’s pace is unrivalled and will cause the United defence plenty of problems while the Frenchman’s ability to operate in tight spaces will also make him a threat wherever he receives the ball. Whichever Emery opts for on Sunday, Chris Smalling and co have a difficult task on their hands.
Where are the key battles going to take place in this game?
Alex: “Arsenal’s back line surely. Big Romelu Lukaku absolutely bullied the Gunners in the FA Cup – recently enough for them to still be feeling it – and his performances against Southampton and PSG look like he’s not slowing anytime soon.”
Will: “Going forward there’s no doubt that Arsenal have the quality to hurt United. However, the likes of Rashford and the in-form Lukaku ought to be savouring the prospect of facing the Gunners’ rearguard on Sunday.
“They may struggle against Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny, but Emery’s full-backs have to step up. If the Red Devils repeatedly get the better of Arsenal on the flanks then the hosts could be in for a long afternoon.”
Lukaku’s midweek brace took his tally for the last three games to six, with the striker also hitting doubles against Southampton and Crystal Palace; Rashford scored his maiden penalty for United on Wednesday, too, in about as high pressure circumstances possible.
The pair are the epitome of confidence at the moment and have looked like men possessed under Solskjaer – they will certainly cause the Gunners defence all kind of problems and the entire back four will have to be on their best form to deal with them.
Solskjaer has revived the classic striker combination here – Rashford is the lightning to Lukaku’s thunder – and it will be fascinating to see how they contend with the recently impressive Sokratis and Koscielny.
Are Rashford and Lukaku currently the most dangerous duo in the Premier League, then?
Will: “Certainly, they’re in great form. However, I really do back Sokratis and Koscielny – who did a great job on Harry Kane recently – to make them toil. If Solskjaer’s forwards can get into the channels though, and exploit the space inside the full-backs, then Bernd Leno will have to be at his best to keep them out.”
Alex: “Short one – yes. Not often you see two strikers nowadays, but Solskjaer has channelled his inner Ferguson and made it work. Both look like they’re enjoying each other’s company.”
Watch the video below to see the most insane overhead kick you will see this week…
Front threes tend to be all the rage in the modern game, with two-striker approaches largely limited to the teams with considerably more stringent budgets and resources.
Such is the form of Lukaku and Rashford that one expects United’s wingers – Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez – will have a tough time earning minutes once they return to fitness and they should have no complaints.
Finally, what’s your score prediction?
Alex: “2-0 United.”
Will: “2-1. A measured prediction based on Arsenal’s home advantage or blind, desperate optimism? Your call.”