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Friday, 11 March 2011

Manchester United (a) FA Cup Quarter Final preview

Time to buck the trend at this place

The big matches continue to come thick and fast for Arsenal. Tomorrow's FA Cup tie at Manchester United has now taken on added importance given the events of the past 13 days. The defeat at Wembley, followed by a home draw in the league and another loss in Barcelona mean that tomorrow is of massive psychological importance for Arsenal's players. It is now, quite simply, the biggest game of the season so far. Both managers must realise that the outcome of this cup-tie could have a huge bearing on the Title run-in. Back in 2008 Arsenal fielded a joke eleven at Old Trafford (with the exception of a magnificent Jens Lehmann) and were summarily dismissed by a near full-strength United. The loss marked the beginning of a terrible spell that ultimately cost us the Premier League that season, having been out in front before the game. It may seem a bit odd to describe an FA Cup tie as being so important to how a League season will finish, but there is even more precedent than the game three years ago. Back in 1999 Dennis Bergkamp missed a last minute penalty against the Mancs at Villa Park - Arsenal missed out on what would have been consecutive "Double's" while Man Utd won everything. On such occasions can seasons turn.
There is no doubt that Arsene Wenger will make some changes tomorrow, but I hope and pray they are kept to a minimum. Some alterations are enforced with the injuries to Szczesny and Fabregas. Robin Van Persie has been declared fit following the Barcelona game and I hope to God that he starts the game. If he doesn't then Marouane Chamakh must get the nod ahead of Nicklas Bendtner. With Vidic expected to return for United we will need someone who is either an exceptional talent (RVP) or physically strong (Chamakh). Whichever way you look at it Nicklas Bendtner can no longer be considered to cut it at this level by anybody (except for himself, perhaps). At the back I expect Squillaci to come in to the starting eleven (I have just seen a rare Twitter entry from him talking about the big game) while Eboue and Gibbs may also start. The absence of Nani would certainly make Gibbs' job a lot more straightforward than it would be otherwise. There is still no Alex Song in midfield. I can't believe Diaby will start again tomorrow so it seems a straight choice between Denilson or Aaron Ramsey, and I think the Brazillian will get the nod. Having been left out so inexplicably in midweek I will be amazed if Andrey Arshavin doesn't start tomorrow (Theo Walcott's mysterious ankle sprain is still keeping him out) but a real measure of Wenger's intent will be whether or not Samir Nasri plays. Given the importance of the outcome tomorrow I would like to see Arsenal's player of the season out there from the start - we will certainly need him.
As I've mentioned Man Utd will have Nemanja Vidic back tomorrow. I don't think you can underestimate his importance to their side - just look at how they played at Anfield without him. I expect Ferguson to play one of his reserve goalkeepers, but the likes of Giggs, Fletcher and Carrick might all be there. I also expect Rooney to play, but it's anybody's guess whether it will be Berbatov or Hernandez with him. One player missing for United, who always plays (and plays well) against Arsenal, is Ji Sung Park. I think Park is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League. It always seems to me that he plays in most of their big games and his work rate is phenomenal. He also has the knack of being in the right place at the right time - usually against us.
To win tomorrow Arsenal will have to buck the trend at Old Trafford. We have a dismal record there in all competitions since the inception of the Premier League (though we are unbeaten there in games not involving Manchester United - the semi-final win there over Spurs being one of my very favourite away trips). We have had our moments there, of course, in 1998, 2002, 2003 (FA Cup) and the infamous draw later the same year, as well as a few other hard-fought draws. There was also a great win in 2006 with a late Adebayor goal but, apart from that, games at that ground have meant a long journey home for the Gooners. The worst defeats have been pretty calamitous, the 6-1 drubbing, the end of the unbeaten run, and the FA Cup tie mentioned above. I would like to have been there tomorrow, but the late kick-off has stopped me from going. I hope that the thousands taking that long trip are able to enjoy the journey back down the M6, safe in the knowledge that we have a team that might still be capable of winning something this season. Incidentally the referee is Chris Foy so don't expect any favours there. I'd love to get back to Wembley at the first available opportunity - a semi-final against Birmingham City would do nicely, thanks very much. To do so the players will have to show their mettle against a big club, in a big game. Can they do it?

The poll closed yesterday with 36 voters believing that the FA are afraid of Manchester United, with only 4 saying otherwise. I didn't really expect any different, to be honest - thought the four "others" were a mild shock (how many times did you vote Pencil?) There will be a new poll later tonight.

I'll review the FA Cup game at some point tomorrow evening.

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