Manchester United and Arsenal meet at Highbury tonight in what is undeniably the biggest game of the English season, with the winners strong favorites to go on and win the title.
Arsenal have won three of the last four encounters between the two sides. The most recent meeting was at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the FA Cup, where goals from Edu and Wiltord gave Arsenal a 2-0 win. Their last league meeting took place before Christmas at Old Trafford, where an inspired performance from Phil Neville helped United to a 2-0 win.
Neville looks unlikely to play a part tonight, with Roy Keane winning his battle for fitness. United are also boosted by the recovery of both Ryan Giggsand David Beckham from injury, but it seems Beckham will have to be content with a place on the bench after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s impressive showing at Newcastle at the weekend.
Only just over a month ago, Arsenal held an eight point lead over their closest rivals. Now United hold a three point lead, but have played one more match than Arsenal and Alex Ferguson has been quick to praiset the effort of his players in clawing back the lead.
“It is not an accident where the players have got themselves,” said Ferguson.
“We have been digging away at Arsenal’s lead for weeks and weeks now. Our form has also been building up really nicely.”
Ferguson admits that the morale boosting 6-2 victory away at Newcastle could not have come at a better time.
“The timing of our superb victory at Newcastle was perfect. It could not have been better. There is not much you can do about it when someone is coming up on you (Arsenal) like we have.”
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has maintained throughout the season that his side is good enough to win the league, an attitude Ferguson has derided as “triumphalist”.
Wenger is now playing down tonight’s game, claiming it will not decide the outcome of the title.
“It is a big game but not a title-decider,” he said.
“No matter what happens in that game the title will not be over. But if you want to be champions this is a good opportunity to take.
“It is down to coping with nerves, good preparation and being relaxed. I don’t think there will be any weaknesses on either side so let’s go for it – Arsenal v Man United on Wednesday night.”
One of the most eagerly anticipated encounters of the game is undoubtedly the battle in midfield between the two captains, Roy Keane and Patrick
Viera, assuming he is fit, has been full of praise for his opposite number and admits enjoying playing against him.
“Keane has had some bad injuries and maybe it has taken time for him to come back to his best,’ admitted the Frenchman. ‘But I still think he is one of the best midfielders out there.
“I enjoy playing against Roy Keane. You always want to play against the best and he is one of the best midfielders.”
The United players are convinced that Viera will play, despite doubts over his fitness.
In his column for icons.com. United winger Ryan Giggs stated: “I don’t think any of us believe for a second that Patrick Vieira won’t be fit in time for the game.
“If there is even the slightest chance he can start, he’ll be in their line-up and we’re not thinking in terms of playing Arsenal without Vieira.”
Giggs believes that his side is on top of its game at the moment and is confident UNited can score tonight.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t score at Highbury,’ he revealed. ‘It’s been one of my best seasons for scoring and with Scholesy, Ole and Becks chipping in as well, we look like a side with a consistent goal threat.”
One player under close scrutiny tonight will be United’s goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. The fixture last season was remembered for two massive errors by the Frenchman that gifted Arsenal the victory. His opposite number, David Seaman, made his 1,000th senior appearance on Sunday and made a crucial late save to ensure Arsenal beat Sheffield United to reach a third successive FA Cup final.
It is not only history of the result on Arsenal’s side. Since Wenger took charge in 1996, the two top scorers in the fixture are both Arsenal players, Freddie Ljundberg and Tierry Henry with four goals apiece. Henry is fresh after being rested at the weekend and is surely Arsenal’s main threat. The man handed the task of keeping him quiet is United’s record signing Rio Ferdinand, who will want to make amends for what has been an inconsistent first season at Old Trafford.
Ferdinand’s England colleague, Sol Campbell with have an equally tough challenge in trying to keep Ruud Van Nistelrooy at bay. The Dutchman who is United’s current form man, scoring in his last six matches and recently breaking the record for the number of goals scored in the Champion’s League in one season.
One interesting statistic is that since Wenger’s first full season in charge, United have won the league three times and Arsenal twice. Success for Wenger would leave them tied at three apiece and would not only represent a very satisfying personal victory for the Frenchman over the Scot, but also vindicate last year’s bold assertion that the balance of power in English football has shifted from Old Trafford to Highbury.