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MATCH PREVIEW: Arsenal FC vs Manchester United

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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17:  Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger looks dejected during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium on April 17, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger looks dejected during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium on April 17, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Manchester United travel to North London on Sunday afternoon for a Barclays Premier League tie versus Arsenal FC. For months, this upcoming match at the Emirates had been billed as a title decider. However, the Gunners recent dip in form has all but ended their title ambitions as United are now nine points clear with only four league matches remaining. The two sides have squared off twice previously this season where the Red Devils were victorious in both encounters; a 1-0 league victory in December and and 2-0 FA quarter-final tie victory in March. 

Manchester United: It has been a busy and ambitious run-in for United; they currently hold a 2 goal advantage over Schalke 04 in a UEFA Champions League semi-final tie and the German side will visit Old Trafford on Wednesday for the return leg. Domestically, United seek what would be a record 19th league title if they are able to hold onto their six point lead over Chelsea FC. The prospective 19th title is one that would enable United to surpass bitter rival Liverpool FC. 

United have the obvious concern of fatigue during this run-in as they've been involved in an important match every three or four days. Fortunately for the club, injuries haven't been a significant concern as of late. Darren Fletcher suffered from a virus that has kept him out for nearly two months, however, the Scotsman has returned to training and even participated in a reserves match during the mid-week. He still won't be available for this match but his return should come soon. Dimitar Berbatov has missed the past few matches due to a groin strain, however, the Premier League's leading goal-scorer is expected to be available for the bout at the Emirates. John O'Shea was out for the match at Schalke and his availability is uncertain. Anders Lindegaard and Owen Hargreaves continue to be unavailable due to long-term injuries.

Arsenal: Just a few months ago, after a first-leg victory over FC Barcelona in the first knock-out stages of the Champions League, Arsenal were riding high and they were in strong contention for four trophies. However, Arsenal went to Camp Nou and fell to the European giants. Soon after, the rest of the North London side's season fell apart: they were defeated as heavy favorites over Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final, they fell to United in FA Cup quarter-final as previously mentioned, and their league ambitions have faded while only picking up eight points from their past seven matches. 

The news on the injury front is good at least; center-back Thomas Vermaelen is close to returning but is still out for Saturday's match. Goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski is out as well due to a shoulder injury. 

Projecting Lineups: Guessing the lineup of United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is always a tricky exercise and it becomes even more complicated with current congested fixture list. The Gaffer already announced that 37-year-old Ryan Giggs will be rested for the match. Paul Scholes is serving the final match of his red-card suspension. It's possible that Fergie plays United in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape considering that any result still puts United in the driver's seat for the title. However, with Fletcher, Scholes, and Giggs unavailable, and also the possibility of Michael Carrick needing a rest, it's more likely that United play in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 type of shape. Edwin van der Sar is the club's No. 1, but if the 40-year-old Dutchman needs a rest, Tomasz Kuszczak has proved to be a capable deputy. Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling are the likely center-back pairing with Rio Ferdinand likely needing a rest at some point in the upcoming week. Patrice Evra is the projected left-back while right-back could be any of Rafael, Fabio, or O'Shea. Anderson is almost certainly to get a start in the central midfield and he could be paired by either Carrick or Darron Gibson. Two of either Park Ji-sung, Nani, and Antonio Valencia are likely to be selected as the wide players; my projections is that the former two are chosen. Park was substituted off in the 2nd half at Schalke with Fergie possibility keeping Arsenal in mind while Valencia went the full 90. Nani also has a history of terrorizing Arsenal left-back Gael Clichy. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is likely to be the striker but Berbatov is a possible as well. Expect to see Wayne Rooney in a withdrawn central playmaking role. 

For Arsenal, the lineup projections appears to be a bit more straight-forward. Wojciech Szczesny wil be in goal and the center-back tandem is Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny. Clichy is the expected left-back and Bacary Sagna the right-back. In Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 shape, Alex Song and Jack Wilshere are the likely choice in the midfield band of two, however, Abou Diaby was recently selected over Wilshere in Arsenal's derby clash with Tottenham Hotspur. In the attacking midfield band, expect to see Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, and Theo Walcott. Robin Van Persie is the first-choice striker. 

Tactical Keys:

* United's ability to cope with Arsenal's fluid attacking movement: Arsenal's attack is very fluid and interchangeable. Starting with their deepest lying midfielders, neither Song nor Wilshere are pure holding midfiedlers; one covers for the other when the other makes a surging run forward. Further up the pitch, Van Persie often acts as a "false-nine;" a striker that often drops deep for the ball and creates space for midfield runners. Nasri starts from a wide position but he generally has a free role and he often drifts inward in search of space. Even Walcott cuts in with diagonal runs after space is created from his teammate's fluid movements. Therefore, United must communicate well, stay organized, and zonally mark in order to cope with Arsenal's fluidity in attack. This is especially important for the youngster Smalling if he gets the start. The young center-back has been fantastic in deputising for Ferdinand this season but he's been prone to getting drawn out of position at times.

* Forcing Arsenal to play with width: As just mentioned, both Nasri and Walcott like to come towards the center of the pitch when the opportunity presents itself. Neither consistently gets down the touchline to swing in crosses. In addition, Van Persie's strength is not in his aerial challenges. Arsenal prefer to unlock defenses with fluid movements and the final killer pass on the floor. If United can stay compact, they can narrow the attacking channels for Arsenal. This also would force Arsenal to attempt more crosses in attack, something that likely would favor United. Here is a Guardian chalkboard of Arsenal's failed attempts to cross the ball in their most recent match versus Bolton Wanderers:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

* Set pieces & Counter-attack: These are two avenues of attack that Arsenal is very vulnerable to. The Gunners' percentage of goals conceded by set-pieces is the highest in the Premier League this season. It's likely that the home supporters will be cringing any time their side concede a free kick in their half of the pitch. Also, United have done very well recently against Arsenal by using a counter-attacking strategy; possibly the best examples being this season's depleted side using the tactic in the FA Cup victory at Old Trafford and also last season's victory at the Emirates. 

Odds: Arsenal 13/8, Draw 23/10, Manchester United 6/4

Prediction: Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United

SB Nation's Arsenal blog: The Short Fuse