And so to the second of our run of four tough games, and arguably the biggest of the lot. Some may argue that the trip to Stamford Bridge is the most critical game we have, but for me, our history with United, and the boost we could get by defeating them, makes this one huge.
That isn’t to say a win is essential. One of the things I’ve noticed before every game this season is how it is always labelled a ‘must win’. The most important thing we have to achieve in the next couple of weeks is simply to stay in the title race. We can’t win it in that time, but we can lose it. Losses to United and Chelsea would almost certainly end the dream for another season.
To those who believe today’s game must be won, let me ask you this: would you rather take a win today and a loss next weekend, or draws in both? The former allows Chelsea to stretch eight points clear if they beat Hull in midweek, and while we’d be in the driving seat for second place, who really cares about that?
On the flip side, if we avoid defeat, neither United or Chelsea have the opportunity of going more than a few points ahead of us, points we can claw back as the fixtures ease.
Of course, if we won today and avoided defeat at Stamford Bridge, we would be in a fantastic position. You can but hope.
Much of the pre-match talk has been about Wayne Rooney, and rightly so – he is in the form of his life, and while most Arsenal fans remember only the dive to end the unbeaten run, he has been a thorn in our side (fairly) for years, and keeping him quiet is key. The job is tailor made for Vermaelen, but should he fail to recover Campbell will step in, his know-how hopefully overcoming his lack of pace.
Meanwhile, Song should return in midfield, freeing Cesc to display the full range of his creative abilities. He will be up against Fletcher again, and one can only hope that he will not be allowed to foul as persistently as he did at Old Trafford earlier in the season.
One man who will look to reprise his role from that game is Arshavin, who has blown hot and cold recently but is a proven big game performer. If Bendtner is fit enough to start then the Russian can revert to his more potent position, making our front six far more deadly than if he is forced into a physical battle with Vidic.
It has been years since a league meeting with United has meant so much, and it is likely to be tight. Last season a brace of Nasri goals gave us a 2-1 win, and with odds of 9/1 on a repeat of that scoreline, that is my bet of the day. Meanwhile, Arshavin scoring at anytime has reasonable value too.
Elsewhere, there is potential good news, with reports that Van Persie could be fit in mid-March, and therefore able to play some part in our run-in. However, that has to be taken with a large pinch of salt, coming as it does from the Dutch national team’s medical staff. How they would know more than ours is a mystery, and it all smacks of wishful thinking ahead of a World Cup summer.
Before I wrap up for the day, I have to mention Martin O’Neill. I had a lot of respect for the man, but that has slowly evaporated this week, with his continued jabs at Wenger, who (like with the Drogba comments earlier in the season) was simply complimenting how difficult Villa are to play against. O’Neill reacted badly when fed a twisted version of what Wenger said after the game, and that much is understandable. But after reflecting, to still come out and lambast Wenger so completely in the media is outrageous. He had another dig after yesterday’s game.
Villa play long ball football. That isn’t an insult, or a criticism, but a fact. They play a big man up front, who holds the ball up when they’re up against it. It is a valid mode of play, and quite effective at times. For O’Neill to be so offended is frankly bizarre. Wenger must wonder what he’s done this season, what with his treatment at Old Trafford, the aftermath of the Drogba comments, the Gallas incident and now this. Time and time again things are being blown out of all proportion.
I guess in a way it is a compliment. The media wrote us off long ago, and we’re proving them wrong. Unable to knock us for our football, they need another angle.
Here’s to proving another point today. Enjoy the game, wherever you are.