Manchester United players dropping like flies rather than face Arsenal
In the buildup to the dustup at Old Trafford, one trend stands out: there's no one worth his salt who really wants to play against Arsenal on Sunday. Between injuries and transfer rumours, it seems that anyone worth his salt is finding a way to eschew what could be a vital clash between clubs seeking to qualify for a Champions League spot.
Manchester United need a win on Sunday if they expect to stay in the running; a loss or draw would essentially relegate them to fourth place, meaning that they'd have to endure a two-leg qualifier to get in, much as Arsenal have time and time again. With that in mind, one might expect an "all hands on deck" attitude from Louis van Gaal's outfit. Instead, however, it looks like Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw will join Michael Carrick and Rafael among the walking wounded, with Robin van Persie and Marcus Rojo coming up lame as well. It's almost as if the entire squad has up and quit on the season. Fine by me.
I know what you're thinking: surely, the absence of Rooney frees up Van Persie or Falcao to run amok. After all, they've each had their moments against us, haven't they, and when one of them falters, the other steps up? However, the ugly fact is that neither Van Persie nor Falcao has justified his price-tag of late. Falcao hasn't scored in 560 minutes of play, and Van Persie hasn't scored against anyone worth scoring against in 931 minutes (with apologies to Burnley, Leicester, and Newcastle, against whom he has scored).
The potential absence of Rooney would seem like handing the car keys of a Porsche to a teenager – except van Persie and Falcao are looking more and more geriatric and brittle week by week. There was a time when those names inspired fear, respect, even awe. But those days are long gone. Of course, there is still a possibility that one or both could deliver a stunning goal, but that's starting to feel like the exception rather than the rule.
The absence of Carrick might matter more than that of Rooney; the cagey 33-year-old has been instrumental to United's stability, shielding an oft-shifting backline and shuttling the ball forward to the more creative types. His absence denies Van Gaal a vital player in the middle of the pitch. Of course, it's not as if United are bereft of options. After Rooney and Van Persie, there are still threats to consider such as Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and Angel Di Maria.
Then again, that last one hasn't started a match since being sent off against Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-final and hasn't scored a goal since the first week of January (against Yeovil, for those curious). We will still have to contend with Fellaini's elbows and Young's dives, but it's starting to feel like this is a United side that is sinking rather than rising.
Add in the all-but-confirmed rumours of David De Gea's summer move to Real Madrid, and it does feel like our erstwhile rivals are clutching at straws – if only they had a world-class goalkeeper who could bail them out, again and again and again, and again and again and again. If it proves true that De Gea does jump ship, we might be witnessing the slow sinking of a once-proud club, one that spent £150m on transfer fees last summer only to flounder its way to fourth place, thanks in large part to the ineptitude of other clubs (Liverpool and Tottenham, to name two) rather than its own, um, "eptitude."
United were supposed to ride a perfect storm of circumstances – Van Gaal's hiring, that £150m in transfer fees, a campaign free of continental commitment – straight towards the top of the EPL. It hasn't quite played out that way, and Arsenal have a chance to take United down yet another peg, again at Old Trafford, suggesting if not proving that there is something to be said for a degree of stability and fiscal sanity.
If Arsenal can go into Old Trafford and win for the second time in as many tries, we will have secured a third-place finish, qualifying outright for Champions League play, while United will feel lucky indeed to have finished fourth. Who knows how many rats will desert a ship that hasn't quite sunk but that has certainly failed to float?