Arsenal host Manchester United at the Emirates on Sunday in the last fixture of the weekend’s Premier League schedule, and it’s a contest that could prove to be a defining moment in this season’s race for a top 4 finish.
Both Arsenal and United were involved in mid-week continental action, though the clubs’ endured and enjoyed highly contrasting fortunes on their respective trips to France.
In a completely unexpected Parisian phenomenon on Wednesday, a ramshackle Manchester United team overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit to dump PSG out of the Champions League.
A day later, Arsenal were given a chasing in Rennes in their own profoundly different and galling Gallic experience.
The fallout from both fixtures in terms of the physical and emotional aftershock is likely to affect both teams at the Emirates on Sunday, and it will be fascinating to see which side has more left in the tank for this crucial encounter.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important individual battles that are could play a key role in deciding the outcome of Arsenal’s tussle with Manchester United this weekend.
Mattéo Guendouzi vs Paul Pogba
Promising midfielder Mattéo Guendouzi will take on a role of huge importance for Arsenal on Sunday. In the absence of the suspended Lucas Torreria, Guendouzi will be tasked with replacing the Uruguayan’s tenacity and aggression in central areas for the Gunners.
One of Guendouzi’s toughest tasks will be trying to limit the influence of Manchester United’s Paul Pogba. Having sat out United’s mid-week heroics in Paris with a suspension of his own, Pogba should be one of the freshest players on the pitch at the Emirates.
Pogba has hit 9 goals and amassed 7 assists in 15 games for United since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment, and the French World Cup winner looks a player reborn under the Norwegian’s instruction.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan vs Luke Shaw
If rumours and reports are to be believed, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was less than enthused about being the make-weight in Alexis Sanchez’ switch from Arsenal to Man Utd in January 2018. However, a little over a year later, it looks as though the Gunners ultimately got the better of that particular player-swap deal.
Mkhitaryan still tends to blow hot and cold for Arsenal, though he has arguably put in more good performances for the Gunners over the past month than Alexis Sanchez has done during his entire spell at United.
The Armenian racked up 2 goals and 3 assists in his last 3 Premier League appearances alone, and on Sunday the 30-year old will put his positive streak to the test against his former teammate Luke Shaw.
Shaw has been one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s most trusted lieutenants since January and the 23-year old’s performance levels seem to be rising week on week. Shaw does however, regularly draw plenty of attention from referees, and the England international has been booked an eye-watering 11 times in all competitions for United this term.
Laurent Koscielny vs Romelu Lukaku
Arsenal’s veteran centre-half Laurent Koscielny was one of a large number of Gunners players to have a torrid time in France on Thursday. The 33-year old was run ragged on his return to his homeland, though Koscielny generally has far more good days than bad at the heart of Arsenal’s defence.
However, injuries have kept Koscielny on the sidelines for large chunks of the season so far, and the defender has started just 9 of Arsenal’s 29 Premier League matches this term during what’s been a frustrating campaign for the 51-times capped French international.
Having a fit Koscielny to call upon will boost Arsenal’s chances of winning on Sunday, though the Gunners’ captain will need to be at his best to stop the red-hot Romelu Lukaku.
Manchester United’s much maligned striker has had a week to remember. The Belgian scored 6 times in 3 games for United, and Lukaku’s goals were the catalysts for victory in each memorable contest.
With United’s list of absentees in attack still achingly long, Lukaku is certain to reprise his role in Solskjaer’s frontline at the Emirates on Sunday.
Alexandre Lacazette vs David de Gea
In the corresponding fixture between Arsenal and Manchester United in last season’s Premier League, David de Gea produced a super-human performance between the sticks to help the away side steal the points.
De Gea made an incredible 14 saves at the Emirates in December 2017, equalling the record for the most stops made in a single Premier League fixture since its inception in 1992.
One Arsenal player did manage to beat de Gea that evening however. French hitman Alexandre Lacazette found a way to beat the flying Spaniard last season, and the 27-year old will be desperate to repeat that trick this time around.
With 2 goals in his last 2 appearances at the Emirates, Lacazette comes into Sunday’s clash in good form. The former Lyon employee missed Arsenal’s Europa League commitments on Thursday though suspension, though the enforced rest should ensure that he’s chomping at the bit this weekend.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles vs Anthony Martial
With Hector Bellerin ruled out through injury and Stephan Lichtsteiner still rated as doubtful, Arsenal could turn again to promising youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles to plug the gap at right back against United.
Maitland-Niles hasn’t featured in any of Arsenal’s last 5 matches, but with so few options available for Unai Emery, the 21-year old right back specialist is favourite to start over a makeshift alternative.
Anthony Martial is fit and available again for United this weekend and the Frenchman’s return will give his injury ravaged team a timely boost ahead of another extremely tough away game.
Martial has scored both home and away against Arsenal already this season. The 23-year old scored United’s 3rd at the Emirates in their 3-1 FA Cup victory last month, and he also registered in United’s 2-2 Premier League draw with the Gunners at Old Trafford in early December.
Martial’s pace and ability to explode forward from deep positions are likely to be key weapons in United’s counter-attacking armoury on Sunday, and Maitland-Niles (if he starts) will have to be in top form to stop him