Manchester United vs Arsenal
Premier League, Monday 13 December, Old Trafford, Manchester
This game needs very little hype. The recent history of meetings between the two says it all – Keane vs Vieira, that penalty from Van Nistelrooy and 'Pizzagate' are just some of the reasons why this fixture is bound to be a highly-charged affair. Throw into the mix that the two sides are separated by a single point at the top of the Premier League and it is clear that the stakes are pretty high.
Manchester United will go into the match as favourites. Sir Alex Ferguson's side are the only unbeaten team in the league in the country and they have won five of their last six games at Old Trafford. A victory for the Gunners may be quite an ask, but Arsene Wenger's side seem to be better on their travels than they are at home, having won four of their last six games on the road. Both sides will be eager to get a positive result with packed schedules ahead of them over the festive period.
Manchester United have rarely hit the heights of their most destructive form this season. Yet, they are dogged and resilient and the 7-1 mauling of Blackburn Rovers last month showed what they can do if they get it right. Meanwhile, Arsenal have very much blown hot and cold so far this season. One week, their flowing football wins them plaudits as title favourites, the next they are said to be in 'disaster mode' following an inept performance such as their home games against Newcastle and West Brom.
The fixture is shaping up nicely with both sides increasing the tension. United defender Patrice Evra branded Arsenal a 'crisis club' given their failure to win a trophy in the past five years while Samir Nasri responded by saying that it is no longer scary to play at Old Trafford. Something will have to give on Monday and no doubt both Ferguson and Wenger would be delighted to go into the Christmas period with a major scalp under their belt.
Manchester United – Can Berbatov and Rooney cause havoc?
Sir Alex Ferguson will be an anxious man. Although his side hammered Blackburn Rovers in the most impressive fashion two weeks ago, Manchester United have since then labored to a draw with Valencia and seen a young side outplayed by West Ham in the Carling Cup. Ferguson will be eager to get things back on track against Arsenal.
All eyes will likely be on the front two of Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney . The Bulgarian is the man of the moment, having hit five goals recently against Blackburn in the 7-1 romp. It will be a sobering thought for Arsenal to wonder what might have been had Rooney been on top form too. The England striker has still not found his scoring boots this season and will be anxious to hit the back of the net. Someone might well be on the end of a Rooney flurry of goals soon and Arsenal will hope it is not them, especially as he has quite a habit of punishing the Gunners.
Although general perception is that Ferguson's team haven't yet been firing on all cylinders, they are unquestionably a very solid outfit. They are the Premier League's only unbeaten side this season and much of that is down to the fact that they have been able to call on the partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic for a prolonged period.
There had been a worry over Ferdinand's fitness, as he limped out of last week's Champions League game against Valencia with a hamstring strain, but the centre-back will be ready to face Arsenal in a back four also including Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva.
In midfield, Paul Scholes looks like he will also be available for selection, having been a doubt with a groin injury. In form winger Nani looks like a certain starter for Ferguson, who will hope that the Portugese international can ask questions of Gael Clichy. The other midfield spots will likely be comprised of three players from Ji-sung Park, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Scholes.
Arsenal – Waiting on Cesc Fabregas
Arsene Wenger's side have recovered well from a period last month which threatened to throw their season off the rails. Back to back defeats against Braga and Tottenham cast a doubt over both their Premier League and Champions League credentials. Yet, the Gunners have bounced back with four wins on the spin, which have seen them qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League and top the Premier League.
Much of the recent upturn in form is down to the magic of Frenchman Samir Nasri . Wenger will look to the in-form midfielder again for Arsenal's creative spark, particularly if Cesc Fabregas is unfit for the trip to Old Trafford. Wenger will make a last-minute call on whether to risk the Spaniard's vulnerable hamstrings with Jack Wilshere on hand to fill in the deep-lying playmaker's role in Fabregas' absence. There is little understating the importance of Fabregas to the Arsenal side and although Wenger may take a cautious approach ahead of a busy few weeks, he will be tempted to use his captain in a game of such importance.
A victory for Arsenal would be an enormous psychological boost for Wenger's side and would announce their arrival as clear title favourites. However, their record against title rivals Manchester United and Chelsea has been awful in recent seasons.
If they are to leave Old Trafford victorious, much will depend on the solidity of Arsenal's defence and goalkeeper. Few are convinced that Lukasz Fabianski can survive a long run in the Gunners' goal without a major mishap. Although Kieran Gibbs is out injured, Wenger can still rely on a good full-back partnership of Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna. Questions will be asked though of his current options at centre-back. Sebastien Squillaci looks like a certain starter with Johan Djourou making a case to partner him ahead of Laurent Koscielny. Whoever Wenger does pick at the centre of defence, United will most likely single out them and Fabianski as weak links in the Arsenal side.
The Gunners though have plenty of exciting options going forward and Nasri will be joined by the likes of Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott . Wenger will almost certainly start with Marouane Chamakh performing the lone striker role that he has impressed in so far this season. However, with Robin van Persie returning to fitness, it will be interesting to see if Wenger makes room for the Dutchman just behind Chamakh.
Players to Watch
Manchester United – Wayne Rooney
Appearances this season: 10 matches, 2 goals
Would the real Wayne Rooney please stand up? It remains a mystery quite what has happened to last season's Manchester United talisman. Rooney was simply outstanding last term, scoring 32 goals. Yet, since he injured an ankle against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final, he has hit the back of the net just twice. Rooney endured a particularly miserable World Cup and injuries, revelations over his private life and controversy over his new contract will likely have taken their toll.
Rooney is visibly low on confidence. But there is a feeling that once he scores a couple from open play, Rooney could just provide the spark that Manchester United need to make a real charge for silverware.
It seems unthinkable that Rooney's barren run will continue for too much longer. Could he prove his quality again against Arsenal, the side against whom he announced his arrival as a teenager at Everton?
A combination of an in-form Rooney and a confident Dimitar Berbatov will have United fans drooling.
Arsenal – Samir Nasri
Position: Attacking midfielder
Appearances this season: 19 matches, 10 goals
The Frenchman is enjoying unquestionably his best season for Arsenal since joining from Marseille in 2008. Nasri has been instrumental for the Gunners this term, particularly in the last few weeks, scoring a stunning brace to ensure victory against Fulham and following it up with a goal against Partizan Belgrade.
Nasri's vision and range of passing and movement has always been evident and has guaranteed that he can be a danger towards any defence. He has sometimes be criticized for a lack of potency in front of goal, but this season he appears to have developed more of a clinical nature, resulting in ten league and European goals so far.
If Cesc Fabregas does return to the Arsenal side on Monday, it will be interesting to see how Nasri copes with playing second fiddle again, having stepped up to the plate in the Spaniard's absence to become the Gunners' major attacking threat. As for Nasri himself, he barely seems concerned and is understandably full of confidence.
In the build-up to the game, he said, "It used to be a little bit scary going to play Manchester United at Old Trafford. I can’t say that’s the case anymore."
Sir Alex Ferguson will certainly hope that Nasri is made to eat his words.