The race for the top-four is edging towards tipping point. At this stage in the season any victory is priceless, but in a Champions League six-pointer the benefits of clinching three points transcend beyond mere mathematics.
Getting one over a fellow contender for the top-four can provide the psychological edge which is needed to win a race of fine margins. Those minute margins, as both Arsenal and Manchester United will be acutely aware ahead of the weekend, are not reflected in the enormity of the financial implications of qualifying for world football’s most prestigious club competition.
Both teams will arrive at the Emirates Stadium on the back of European evenings across the channel which belong in different universes: United completed an unprecedented feat in Paris by overturning a 2-0 first-leg home defeat, while Arsenal hit the self-destruct button in Rennes a day later.
The Gunners will need to banish any feelings of self-pity and disappointment as they prepare for a game with much greater significance on Sunday. Ahead of the fixture, we’re taking a look at the key factors which could shape the result in north London, with a rejuvenated Romelu Lukaku, an unproven teenage prodigy and a marginalised Arsenal star all at the heart of the analysis.
Sokratis, Arsenal’s defensive colossus come Rugby tackling extraordinaire, patrols the defensive unit like a first year playground bully on the hunt for a scrap with a kid five years his elder. Physical battles are his forte and he may well find his match against Romelu Lukaku, who comes into this game in a rich vein of form.
The Belgium international’s goal scoring expertise has made a timely return and, combined with his power and willingness to stretch the opposition by oscillating from touchline to touchline, he has the potential to out-think the Greece international both tactically and physically.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has resurrected the clinical spirit which has defined much of Man United’s success in the Premier League era. A smash and grab 1-0 win away at Tottenham Hotspur just after the turn of the year, which saw Marcus Rashford fire home a first-half winner on the breakaway, was emblematic of a new-look, recharged Red Devils.
Results akin to their Wembley win have arrived thereafter: midweek victory over PSG aside, United’s 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium in the 4th round of the FA Cup is the most pertinent for supporters to bear in mind.
Another masterclass in incisive attacking football will give United a great chance of taking something away from north London, even in the absence of so many senior players.
Both sides made the short journey to France this week and the quality of their respective physical recoveries will undoubtedly shape the result. The Gunners have had a day less to recover but United’s unfathomably long list of injuries will give Solskjaer little scope to rotate and deploy a handful of fresh legs.
United’s extra time to recover has effectively been cancelled out by their injury problems, but Arsenal will feel leggy themselves after coming up short against Rennes in the Europa League.
Tahith Chong’s rise into the first-team is symptomatic of the extent of United’s injury crisis. The pacey winger has impressed at youth level this season but his graduation into the senior squad has been prematurely accelerated due to the severity of the problems which have unfolded at Old Trafford.
Mesut Ozil started at Roazhon Park on Thursday night as Aaron Ramsey took his place on the bench, but it’s likely that those two players will swap places on Sunday given Emery’s recent selection policy.
Ramsey scored the opening goal at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend while the ex Germany international had to make do with a place on the substitutes bench before being brought on with little under 20 minutes to play.
Chong and Ozil are at the opposite ends of their footballing careers so it will be interesting to see how they compare if they are offered a chance to shift the dynamic of the game from the bench.