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RVP looks for centre-stage, but Santos will decide fate at Old Trafford

    Live from Old Trafford on ESPN at 1610 hrs (IST) This must be the fixture that Arsene Wenger and the fans worldwide will be dreading the most. Manchester United hammered Arsenal 8-2 last season, in what was the Gunners’s worst loss of the century, and now Ferguson has also tapped up Arsenal’s last …

 Live from Old Trafford on ESPN at 1810 hrs (IST)

This must be the fixture that Arsene Wenger and the fans worldwide will be dreading the most. Manchester United hammered Arsenal 8-2 last season, in what was the Gunners’ worst loss of the century, and now Ferguson has also tapped up Arsenal’s last season’s top scorer.

Matters indeed do look very bleak on paper for the North Londoners. Let’s just put it out there; Arsenal let in 5 goals against Reading, United’s top performers in this fixture last time: Rooney and Young are back in top form, and RVP, who is once again leading goal scoring charts, will further be motivated by the chants that are sure to come from the travelling Arsenal support.

Team News

Again on paper, Utd lie just 1 point behind League leaders Chelsea, but any observer of their last couple of matches would admit that their defence is very vulnerable at the moment. The absence of Vidic, Smalling and Jones is still felt on the team’s performance, as Fergie had to give breaks to Rio, Evra and Evans against Chelsea, just to keep his playing XI fit.

The rest of the squad looks very bright and refreshed, with long term absentees Anderson and Fletcher also back to full fitness. Ferguson has his full quartet of RVP, Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck fit for this occasion.

Arsenals on the other hand, are passing through another injury hit phase. Gervinho, Gibbs, Diaby and Szczesny are still not fully fit. Oxlade Chamberlain is tentative due to a hip injury and might make the bench. Jack Wilshere’s return is a big boost for Wenger, but the 20-year-old needs to be played with caution. Cazorla, Arteta and Podolski will return to action after a week’s break. Mertersacker, Vermaelen, Jenkinson and Santos are set to take up positions in defence.

A big selection worry for the manager would be the selection of Walcott. Theo certainly proved a point against Reading, but after playing 120 minutes on Tuesday, the Englishman might not be ready for another tough game on Saturday. Though Walcott’s presence will restrict Patrice Evra’s attacking surges, Wenger tends to use Aaron Ramsey at this position in away games.

Predicted Lineups:

Manchester United: (4-4-1-1) De Gea, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra, Valencia, Cleverley, Carrick, Young, Rooney, RVP

Arsenal: (4-2-3-1) Mannone, Sagna, Merteracker, Vermaelen, Santos, Arteta, Gibbs, Cazorla, Ramsey, Giroud, Podolski

Tactical Battles

Ferguson had surprised pundits with his diamond midfield formation, but he will surely revert back to his 4-4-1-1 against Arsenal. This will be due to the presence of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.

Young wrecked havoc on the left last year against Arsenal, and harassed the then debutant Jenkinson.  Even Walcott was caught defending on that occasion and rarely featured in attack. But on this occasion, the returning Bac Sagna will start at right back for Arsenal, and the experienced Frenchman should be able to deal with Young’s threat. Though Sagna is just back from a long layoff, the presence of Ramsey on that wing will also aid his play. Ramsey will definitely be told to track Young’s runs and this will leave a fullback vs. fullback situation between Sagna and Evra.

Who will protect Andre Santos?

On the other flank, things will be a bit more favorable for United. Valencia will be up against Andre Santos, and the Columbian should have no problem in beating the defensively weak Santos. Valencia is a pretty similar player to Schalke’s Farfan and will tend to get down the flank and cross into RVP. And the precision with which he has been finding the Dutchman in the last 2 games, just amplifies the need of a solid performance by Santos.

Wenger will look to depute Arteta or Vermaelen to cover up for Santos on the right. Though it is the captain Vermaelen who tends to drift into that position normally, he won’t have that freedom here as he will be up against his ex- captain. van Persie will know every movement of Arsenal’s defenders well and will be looking for such slip ups. Moreover, the Dutchman will tend to drift over to Vermaelen’s side as the other defender Mertersacker is much more intelligent and has been able to negate top attackers this season.

So it will be Arteta who will be given the role to cover Santos. This again leaves a bigger threat of leaving space for arch nemesis Wayne Rooney. Rooney will be looking to play in this space, between Arteta and the defence, the entire game, as he was successfully able to do so against John Obi Mikel at Stamford Bridge.

Midfield battles

As Rooney will be playing much higher up the much than in the diamond formation, the midfield battle will be a 2V2 between Wilshere – Cazorla and Cleverley – Carrick. This is got to be the battle that decides the match, and even though Cazorla has been making all the headlines for Arsenal this season, it will be Wilshere on Cleverley that looks likely to light up the game.

Cleverley has made a strange start to the season, where even though he has produced extremely bright performances in midfield, he has come under criticism from fans and manager for his indecisive finishing. Cleverley will be the more attacking of the United midfield duo, and will look to link up with Rooney making it a 4-1-4-1 at times. This is where Wilshere comes into play.

Jack has just returned from injury and thus lasted only 70 minutes last week. But here the Englishman may last even less as he will have the job to track Cleverley the whole time. Wilshere is surely adept in this role as seen against Barca at the Emirates, and his role in starting play immediately after tackling the man is often Arsenal’s main weapon these days.

Cazorla on Carrick will be another interesting clash, as on paper Carrick looks to the perfect player to stop Cazorla’s movement. The Spaniard looks to drift between the lines and then find Giroud’s diagonal run, but Carrick has been seen sitting quite deep and playing much less adventurous passes, either back to the defense or the full backs. Cazorla will require the assistance of the in-cutting Podolski on such occasions, but the German will be mixed in battles of his own down the left.

Attacking United’s weak-points

Podolski will be facing Rafael on the left, and surely the German will not be exploiting Rafael’s major weakness of jumping to clear crosses in the box. Podolski rarely ventures into goal scoring positions at the far post and will be seen much central, trying to double-team Michael Carrick. But the pace of Rafael in attack is sure to leave Podolski on the back-foot, as his negligence to do so would leave the clueless Santos with yet another threat to deal with.

Olivier Giroud looked in inspired form against Reading, and though this would be the game where Arsenal fans will compare him with what they have lost in RVP, Giroud himself could prove a point against the vulnerable Ferdinand and Evans. Evans, being the quicker of the 2 center backs, will be the one to be pulled out on the occasions that Giroud or Cazorla fall deep. This would leave the likes of Podolski and Walcott at a later stage to run at the slow paced Rio.

The match looks to be a mouth watering clash between teams who will not look to spring surprises in terms of tactics. Though an 8-2 hammering doesn’t seem on the cards again as Arsenal do not have as many injury woes as last season, United will look to crowd out the likes of Arteta and Vermaelen in defence.

Player to watch out: Ashley Young, Theo Walcott

Prediction: Manchester United 3 – 1 Arsenal

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