Manchester United-Arsenal — FA Cup Quarterfinal —
Tine to Defend the Cup and Make a Statement
On the back of our most dominating performance of the season, a sumptuous 2-nil victory over Championship leaders and Man City beaters, Middlesbrough, Arsenal drew Manchester United, away, in the quarter-final round of the FA Cup. It didn’t seem like a just reward at the time and, as the match approaches, its significance only increases.
Whichever team prevails in this one will be favoured to win the next two at Wembley and raise the cup. Additionally, as the clubs are separated by only a point in the Premier League standings, the result tomorrow will surely set a tone for the ongoing battle there as well. United Manager Louis van Gaal says he would trade cup progression for a top 4 finish in the league, but there’s no reason, given their lighter, Europe-free schedule, that United will not give everything they’ve got.
Arsene Wenger has similarly noted the tightness of the race for Champions League qualification, but he too will understand the wider implications of getting a result at Old Trafford–including a draw which would force a replay back in North London. While both managers have gone to pains to play down the importance of this one, the FA Cup surely represents the most realistic chance at silverware for both clubs this season.
Our record in traveling to Old Trafford does not make for pretty viewing. In our last 10 matches we’ve drawn only once, losing all the rest, and we actually haven’t won there since the Autumn of 2006. During this run we’ve played there twice in the FA Cup. In 2008, we were leading the league, but played a much changed team and were well beaten, 4-nil. More recently in 2011, in this same quarterfinal round, we lost 2-nil. To be clear, even if we’ve taken the more recent trophies in this competition, winning a year ago and in 2005, on penalties over the Red Devils at Wembley, (Man U most recently raised the cup the year before in 2004) United have dominated us in this period, finishing above us in the league every single year except the most recent one.
Even as they transition out of the Sir Alex Ferguson era and attempt to rebuild under Van Gaal, we have yet to actually assert our superiority in head to head battle. Last year, during the disastrous season with David Moyes at the helm, ManU beat us 1-nil in the league match-up at Old Trafford, while the reverse fixture was a desultory nil-nil at our home ground. This season, in our one meeting, at the Emirates, although dominating play early on, United scored with their first shot on goal. Suicidal pressing forward in desperate search for an equalizer resulted in a 2nd breakaway goal which sealed our fate.
But that’s all history, of course, and tomorrow’s match represents a chance to wipe the slate clean and prove ourselves the superior team. With the exception of our 2-1 loss in the North London Derby, 2015 has shown that Arsenal can travel to hostile environs and still get results, the blueprint being the trip to East Manchester and the 2-nil victory at Man City. We only had a third of the possession in that one, but still managed to control the match and prevail. Yeoman efforts from more attacking players like Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla helped protect less experienced defenders; Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin, to create a dominating defensive display. David Ospina, newly established in goal for league matches, hardly had a save to make.
This being a cup match, however, there will be changes in personnel. Wojciech Szczesny, demoted from the league matches, if passed fit after a midweek illness, will get his chance between the sticks. Gabriel Paulista most likely would have started in one of the center back positions, as he did vs Boro in the previous round, but a mid-week hamstring pull rules him out, meaning our Big F**king German, Per Mertesacker, and Laurent Koscielny will surely get the call. Spaniard Nacho Monreal seems recovered from a mild back strain so he likely pairs with his young countryman, Bellerin, at the other fullback position. Coquelin, broken nose protected by an ominous looking white mask, surely will go at defensive mid.
The more difficult calls are up front. It seems impossible to sit Olivier Giroud, who has scored the opener in our two most recent matches and brings so much shape to our attack while also presenting a real target when we have to kick out of our own half. Likewise, Alexis Sanchez, who finally broke a 6 match goal drought in midweek at Queens Park Rangers, brings too much energy for a bench seat. Santi Cazorla, sitting deeper in that match, also seems the key figure linking our rearguard to our attack. Mesut Ozil, at the heart of the action in recent matches, also appears undroppable. This leaves a single starting position open and my call goes to Aaron Ramsey. Back from a recurring hamstring problem, his ball carrying and greater physicality looked the part in settling the result in midweek after QPR pulled a goal back.
This starting line-up does seem harsh on others who have been playing well, including Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck, who is returning to Old Trafford for the first time since his deadline day transfer away last summer. Theo Walcott has also been a contributor, especially at the sharp end of our attack, and it’s always possible that Wenger might mix things up and start him. Still, this is the 11 I think will start.
(Subs: Martinez, Chambers, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Walcott, Welbeck)
Man United will also go with a very strong line-up and will likely stay with their most valuable player this season, goalkeeper David De Gea. Despite the tactical innovations for which Van Gaal is famous, most notably playing 3 at the back this past summer in getting a weaker than usual Dutch National team to the semi-finals of the World Cup, experiments with similar tactics have not yielded good results at United. If ever there was a match to go back to that plan, however, it might be this one, given that center back Johnny Evans begins the first of 6 matches out, suspended for a spitting incident. Luke Shaw, the young left back bought from Southampton over the summer, is also nursing a hamstring strain, so it may actually be difficult for Van Gaal to field four defenders. Traditional wingers like Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have, at times, at least, been used as wing-backs, and I suspect they might be deployed in similar fashion for this one. If they are, a deeper lying set of mid-fielders, two of Michael Carrick, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera will likely back up a front three of Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Wayne Rooney.
Unfortunately, for all who like more than a bit of pantomime (or real) villainy, Robin van Judas, er, Persie is injured for this one. Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini are also attacking players Van Gaal might choose in his first 11 or bring off the bench if United needs goals.
Despite the high stakes in a cup match of this sort, I expect a cagey battle with both teams looking to assert control in midfield and not unhappy to let the other group have possession. United should be the team more determined to attack in front of their home crowd. While neither team would relish a replay, I think Wenger will be at greater pains to suggest to his squad that such a result is not a bad one and that fore-aft balance is critical given all the skill players United can throw at us. In other words, I doubt this one will be hell for leather from the outset. An early goal, especially if Arsenal can get it, might open things up considerably.
But my voice is just a single one. How do other Gooners feel about this cup tie? Who do you think will play and how will the match play out? What would you do if you were in charge? Is this match as critical as I’m portraying it or just another in a long line of tough ones? Should we go all out for the cup or keep our focus on the league and the very difficult return leg of the Champions League eliminations at Monaco in less than 10 days time? These questions (and others you might frame) need answers… Go on then…