On Sunday afternoon, Manchester United face off with Arsene Wenger one last time. The long-serving Arsenal boss announced his departure (effective at season’s end) just a few days ago, bringing his legendary Premier League career to a bittersweet end.
Unfortunately, with neither Arsenal nor United currently challenging at the top of the table, this final meeting between rivals lacks some of the grandeur of those famous turn-of-the-millennium grudge matches.
Back then, those battles between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger — complete with contrasting tactical styles and mind-games through the media — often proved to be the highlight of the season.
But times have changed. Ever since Sir Alex stepped into retirement after the 2012/13 season, United have struggled to recapture that same league-winning magic. And, with Arsenal descending into mediocrity over the past decade, much of the enmity between these two clubs has faded away.
Adding to Sunday’s lower stakes is that this fixture sits right between the two legs of Arsenal’s Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid. Completely adrift from the top four, Arsenal’s only path back to the Champions League goes through the UEFA Cup.
With less than three days of rest after the first leg and the all-important trip to Madrid following in midweek, Wenger will likely field a rotated side at Old Trafford on Sunday.
If Arsenal cannot keep their Champions League hopes alive, then Wenger’s farewell tour will be the only thing left to play for. It’s been a calamitous league campaign for the Gunners, left in the dust by their London rivals and now clawing with Burnley for sixth place.
Back in early December, United defeated Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates. At a time when both the club and manager were under siege for a series of subpar results in big matches, that win over Arsenal represented an important step forward. Paul Pogba’s silly red card — which kept him out of the following weekend’s Manchester derby — was the lone blemish on a strong team performance.
United enter Sunday’s match fresh off an impressive come-from-behind win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley. Goals from Alexis Sanchez and Ander Herrera turned around an early deficit and now sets up an intriguing FA Cup final with Chelsea next month.
That man Alexis surely dreams of a huge performance on Sunday, his first time lining up against Arsenal since his January move to Manchester. Although he took a little while to find his feet at Old Trafford, Sanchez has been much improved in recent weeks and looks every bit a world-class talent.
For Arsenal, Henrikh Mkhitaryan will likely miss out on a return to his old stomping grounds after picking up a knee injury earlier this month. The Armenian playmaker went the other way in January’s Sanchez swap and might have faced an icy reception from the Old Trafford faithful after some less than complimentary comments about his former club and manager.
Honestly, it’s tough to guess exactly who might make up Arsenal’s attack this weekend. Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, and Danny Welbeck all played 90 minutes in the club’s disheartening 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid on Thursday. The Gunners dominated their Spanish visitors — with 76% of possession and a 27-6 edge in shots — but head to the second leg needing a big result.
One player certain to start for Arsenal is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Signed from Dortmund in January for £55 million, Aubameyang remains cup-tied from the German side’s stint in the Champions League this fall and cannot play against Atletico. In his first nine Premier League games, though, the forward has already scored six goals and will demand close attention from United’s defense.
A full-strength Manchester United against an Arsenal short on rest and with one eye on the Europa League should equal three easy points. Add in their dire away form (five losses in 2018) and this could be another big step towards locking up second place.
Finishing second might not set the players’ hearts racing, but Jose Mourinho should have little trouble inspiring focus and effort in the coming weeks. Places are up for grabs ahead of next month’s FA Cup final and everyone should feel like they’re in with a chance of making the Wembley team-sheet on May 19.
Arsene Wenger’s legacy after more than two decades at Arsenal cannot be disputed — even by his one-time antagonist Mourinho. After all, ever since the announcement, the United boss has gone out of his way to praise his Arsenal counterpart. But, make no mistake, he would love nothing more than to inflict one more reminder that, in this rivalry, Manchester United always comes out on top.