It was not long ago that an Arsenal – Manchester United match was deemed a title decider. However, it is a sign of the North London club’s fall from grace that United arrive at the Emirates Stadium with the title already sewn up, while Arsene Wenger’s men are battling it out for a top-four finish and Champions League qualification.
However, Sunday’s game still has an interesting narrative. As well as the chase for the Champions League, Arsenal also have to contend with the return of their former captain and star player Robin van Persie.
Will the Gunners offer a guard of honour to the newly crowned champions? Will United suffer a hangover from winning the title?
Here are five key battles:
1. Robin van Persie v Arsenal fans
It would be no surprise if the former Gunners captain is booed on Sunday. It’s no slight on the Arsenal fans, just how football fans in general act whenever a former player returns these days. Van Persie gave eight years great service to Arsenal, scoring 132 goals in 277 appearances, and his thirty league goals last season almost singlehandedly pulled the club into the Champions League.
That he had only one FA Cup winners medal and a Community shield winners medal to show for those eight years hurts the Dutchman as much as it does the Arsenal fans, but his move to Manchester United has already proved a success, with his hat-trick on Monday against Aston Villa sealing United’s title win.
The title win means Arsenal have now received an additional £1.5m on top of the £22.5m transfer fee for Van Persie. Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry are still warmly welcomed at the Emirates; however, the players who left for Manchester City are routinely booed, and it remains to be seen if Van Persie will be forgiven for moving to a domestic rival, despite all that he has done.
Booing him might be counterproductive – it could stir Van Persie into action, while a kinder reception might dampen his efforts – and no doubt the player will not want to antagonise the fans who once adored him, but the reaction of the crowd when Van Persie’s name is first read out will set the tone for the rest of the evening.
2. Jack Wilshere v Michael Carrick
Two England internationals are set to go head-to-head – one bearing England’s future on his shoulders, another who too often has struggled when it matters. Wilshere is still recovering from his latest ankle injury while Michael Carrick was nominated on the PFA Player of the Year shortlist. Whoever comes out on top could determine which team wins the game.
Wilshere is the more dynamic of the two players, which is why his ankle troubles are so worrying. Wenger has played Wilshere in a more advanced number 10 role in recent weeks, with mixed results, and the 21-year-old has amazingly scored only one Premier League goal for Arsenal. However, as the laboured 1-0 win against ten-men Fulham on the weekend showed, the Gunners struggle without their latest prodigy.
Carrick has performed well this season, however this correspondent has never been fully convinced by the ex-Tottenham and West Ham midfielder. England’s draw in Montenegro recently was a prime example of the Carrick conundrum. First half, with England on top, Carrick helped grease the wheels of the England midfield. Second half, when the going got tough, Carrick went missing. Arsenal may no longer be the top level opposition they once were, but if they can get on the ball and dominate the play Carrick will struggle to wrestle back the initiative.
Whoever plays the better will no doubt be on the winning side.
3. Olivier Giroud v Rio Ferdinand
Ferdinand was left on the bench in the win over Villa, so his return to the starting XI is to be expected. He will likely go up against Frenchman Giroud, who has impressed and frustrated in equal measures in his debut season in England.
Eleven goals in 33 Premier League appearances may not sound all that impressive, but Robin van Persie needed over two seasons of Premier League football to reach eleven goals, in much better Arsenal teams, so it’s not all bad. However, Van Persie was a young, precocious talent, whereas Giroud is 26 and should be approaching the peak of his talents. On the other hand, French football has provided plenty of late bloomers (Didier Drogba anyone?) so there is hope yet.
On Sunday he will come across one of the Premier League’s best ever defenders. Despite injuries curtailing his involvement in recent years and taking a yard of pace from him, Ferdinand still reads the game magnificently and has the concentration and leadership skills that have earned him six league winners medals. Giroud offers Arsenal a more physical attacking threat than they are used to over the last decade, but he might struggle to get any change out of Ferdinand.
4. Theo Walcott v Patrice Evra
Walcott is another Arsenal player coming back from injury, but with the ineffective Aaron Ramsey having filled in on the right wing recently, Lukas Podolski out of favour, and Gervinho as inconsistent as ever, the English pace merchant will fancy his chances of starting against United.
Walcott will be up against Patrice Evra, who has recovered from a spell of indifferent form to get somewhere near his best, although the Frenchman is helped by the ineptitude of his deputy, Alexander Buttner.
Evra has showed himself vulnerable to speedy wingers, with Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon enjoying the better over the full back in their clashes. Walcott’s speed is almost unrivalled, and Evra will have to be at his best to repel the England international. How well Evra plays may be due in large part to how United set themselves up – if Ashley Young is played ahead of him Evra will be offered some cover, however if Shinji Kagawa or Danny Welbeck play then Evra could find himself exposed, and Walcott will reap the rewards.
5. Sir Alex Ferguson v Arsene Wenger
Potentially the least volatile battle of the lot, Ferguson versus Wenger used to be an epic battle. It was a sign of Ferguson’s respect for the Frenchman that the United manager would look to pick fights with his adversary. If Ferguson is calling you nasty names then you know you are having an effect on him, and the Arsenal ‘Professor’ found it startlingly easy to get under Sir Alex’s skin.
However, in recent seasons Ferguson has been much more complementary about Wenger, and when Fergie offers sympathy or acclaim to a manager it is because he no longer sees him as a threat. The amicable nature of Van Persie’s sale to United only confirms the feeling that these two managers no longer see each other as direct rivals, and without the personal grudge Ferguson may struggle to find the required motivation for himself and his team.
Wenger’s dynasty feels like it is coming to an end, and with his contract ending in 2014 – he said he would never break a contract – one wonders if the stress and strain has taken too much out of Wenger. Whichever manager can find the most fire in his belly to motivate his troops could be the one comes out on top on Sunday.