I get more excited about games against Manchester United than any other team.
I hate, hate, hate them with a passion: a feeling stemming from the intense rivalry that existed between the two sides when I started following Arsenal in the 1990s, as well as their consistent tendency to surround the referee like a pack of bonobos whenever they decided they needed a decision to go their way.
They’re still a team packed full of extremely unlikeable players: Wayne Rooney is the creme de la creme of course, but guys like Rio Ferdinand, Darren Fletcher and Nani are folks I would seriously consider kicking if I ever saw them in the street. Of course, they’d probably kick me back but that’s a risk one has to take.
It might only be the FA Cup — a competition that has to rank as our second priority to the league title — but it would give me such satisfaction to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford today. Aside from the fact that we need a bit of a boost after recent disappointments, a win against our major (dare I say only?) title rivals on their home turf would strike an enormous psychological blow with just ten league games left to play.
The papers were enormously critical of our attitude at the Camp Nou but as I explained in my alternative report of the game, that conclusion, in stark contrast to Inter Milan’s performance at the same stadium last season, only came about because we lost the game.
Everybody was quite happy to use the fact that we failed register an attempt on goal as a sign of the weakness of our performance on the nigh. But a much more significant statistic was that fact that over two games we only lost by one goal and at the time of Robin van Persie’s sending off, were leading the tie by three goals to two.
So despite the negative reactions to losing against Barcelona I believe we look better placed to win this game than Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Our injury situation is poor, but not desperate, while United’s lack of form as well as their need to leave some gas in the engine for their midweek Champions League clash with Marseille leaves us with a slight advantage.
Our next fixture is not for a full seven days which means there is no excuse for us not to play our best available side. To my money that means Manuel Almunia in goals behind a back four of Bacary Sagna, Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Gaël Clichy, a midfield triangle of Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Samir Nasri and a front three of Nicklas Bendtner, Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin.
That line-up includes a couple of interesting structural changes to the side — namely Nasri dropping into the centre and Bendtner being brought in on the right — but I just feel without both Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas, we need a little bit more character in the centre of the park. I agree that Nasri performs best closer to goal but as United’s midfield is generally conceded their weakness I feel using the Frenchman in a more central, influential role would be more effective.
Manchester United are in a bad run of form, have injuries to key defenders and their best attacking player this season — thank-you Jamie Carragher — and have a Champions League game in just three days. Liverpool and Chelsea have shown over the past few weeks that their position at the top is more down to their pedigree and winning culture rather than the quality of their team and I firmly believe they are there for the taking today.
Our boys will of course still be feeling the effects of a difficult result against Barcelona, but need to get over it quickly. Despite taking a 2-1 lead into the game at the Nou Camp we were always underdogs to come through the tie and there was no disgrace to be knocked out by such a strong team. Hopefully our team can see some perspective in this, put all their mental and physical energy into beating Manchester United tonight and enjoy the week-long rest that will follow.
I say that United are there for the taking but just as their position at the summit of the Premier League suggests, they are a team who can get results when they don’t deserve them. At home, in front of their fans and with pride on the line, they will put in a huge effort and may turn this game into a scrappy, dogged affair, similar to the game at Old Trafford earlier in the season.
Today is a big opportunity for our boys to turn the page on a difficult couple of weeks and begin the final charge to the finish line. Against Manchester United the games are always important and despite there being no league points up for grabs, today may turn out to be a significant day in the title race.
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