Another week, another season-defining match for Manchester United. Everyone’s still buzzing over Wednesday’s Champions League comeback in Paris, but now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Reds head to North London with a top four spot in the balance. United currently cling to fourth, but Arsenal linger just one place — and one point — behind.
Both sides played in France mid-week, although only Manchester United came home happy. Arsenal lost 3-1 at Rennes in the Europa League, leaving them with a mountain to climb in the return leg at the Emirates. Plus, United get a much-needed extra day’s rest after a grueling, desperate effort at PSG.
There are so many talking points after United’s huge win, but Romelu Lukaku’s resurgence deserves special mention. Lukaku’s opener in the 2nd minute gave the young Reds side some early hope, while his second — pouncing on a spilled Marcus Rashford shot — sent them into the locker room with all of the momentum. That makes six goals for the Belgian in his last three matches and takes his club total to 42 goals in under two seasons.
Lukaku still has much to improve on — his first touch remains horrifying — but there’s so much goal-scoring talent in the 25-year-old. He got off to a slow start under Solskjaer, but seemingly can’t put a foot wrong nowadays.
Good news: At his pre-match presser on Friday, Solskjaer delivered a positive update on the club’s injury crisis. “Eric [Bailly]’s fine,” the manager said. “Anthony [Martial] will be available and, hopefully, we’ll have Nemanja [Matic] and/or Ander [Herrera] ready as well, so we’re looking better for it.”
“They just need to have another couple of days’ training with the team. They’ve done well in their recovery work.”
Even with Martial looking likely for Sunday, Solskjaer will probably once again call on academy players like Mason Greenwood or Tahith Chong to fill out the bench.
Two more to watch: Diogo Dalot and Scott McTominay. Dalot replaced the injured Bailly in the first half on Wednesday and quickly proved that he should have been starting in the first place. Dalot continues to impress at every turn, skipping through the PSG defense and creating a dangerous chance shortly before the break. Oh, and that long-range shot, blessed by the VAR gods, that earned United the winning penalty.
McTominay, too, is making a strong case for an increased first team role. He’s been brilliant since stepping in for Matic — so much so that the veteran midfielder might struggle to regain his starting place once healthy. At worst, McTominay should be called on to give Matic a breather every once in a while.
Sunday at the Emirates pits two of the Premier League’s in-form teams against each other. The Gunners are unbeaten in the league since early February, while United haven’t lost a domestic match since before Christmas.
It all starts up front for Arsenal, with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang combining for 33 goals in all competitions. Suspended for Wednesday, Lacazette will be well-rested for this weekend. Aubameyang, on the other hand, should be champing at the bit to redeem himself for his last-second penalty miss last weekend at Tottenham Hotspur. United’s defenders will need a strong performance on Sunday.
But they proved at PSG that they’re up to the task. Kylian Mbappe, who shredded the backline at Old Trafford, was mostly kept under wraps in the second leg thanks to Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling. Mbappe did break through on goal near the end, but slipped on the slick turf while trying to round David De Gea. All in all, it was a quiet night for the prolific youngster.
Arsenal will be without Lucas Torreira on Sunday. At the tail end of the North London derby, Torreira saw red for a poor tackle on Danny Rose and will begin a three-match suspension this weekend. He’s played in every league match up until this point, so Torreira will be a huge loss for the Gunners.
At Rennes, Arsenal played well in the first half, but completely collapsed once reduced to ten men after Sokratis Papastathopoulos’s red card. That’s now back-to-back matches that the club ended short-handed. Emery insists that discipline is not a problem, but no team can have sustained success playing with only ten men.
If anything, Arsenal’s loss in France makes them all the more dangerous on Sunday. The Europa League backdoor into the Champions League now looks unlikely, leaving the Gunners hellbent on getting back into the top four. That’s probably their only way into next season’s Champions League.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s road warriors won’t shrink from the challenge. Arsenal have won their last eight league home games, but United are on a better streak — nine road wins in a row. Make that ten and Manchester United solidifies their spot in the top four and deals a major blow to Arsenal’s prospects.
And, don’t look now, but Tottenham Hotspur in third is hardly out of reach. Let’s turn up the heat on them, too.