50-50 Challenge: Arsenal vs. Manchester United -- a rivalry renewed
Arsenal vs. Manchester United defined the Premier League in the mid-to-late '90s as the rivals battled for the title and had their fair share of run-ins with each other. It was a time of Patrick Vieira vs. Roy Keane, Arsene Wenger vs. Sir Alex Ferguson and, of course, Pizzagate.
Perhaps the matches have lost intensity in recent years as first Arsenal fell away from the title picture before United suffered their own slump. Still, it's always a headline-grabbing match, and Andrew Mangan (Arsenal) and Scott Patterson (Manchester United) have their say ahead of Saturday's contest at Emirates Stadium.
This rivalry isn't quite what it used to be, is it?
Andrew Mangan: No, but then that big rivalry was something quite special and very much of its time. The league was a two-horse race, and the rivalry featured the two best managers in the league, the two best teams (which genuinely couldn't stand each other) playing fine football and giving everything to get one over on the other. It was diluted by the arrival of Chelsea's money and television deals, which made the league more competitive in general, along with Arsenal falling away for various reasons (stadium, finances and so on).
There's no point in harking back to it and wishing it would return, but it was brilliant. I loved it.
Scott Patterson: Andrew's right. Unlike in other rivalries, the players genuinely appeared to hate one another. There was often plenty of controversy whether a play was a penalty, a nasty challenge or a red card, which would always get the crowd going. United ended Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run in 2004, and the bitterness that their fans, players and manager felt as a result seemed to linger. Arsenal haven't won a title since, and last year's FA Cup was their first trophy since beating United in the final in 2005, whereas the Reds have won the league five times, lifted the European Cup and won a few other trophies in between.
Chelsea and then City replaced Arsenal as United's title rivals, so they moved on, but Arsenal held on to it for longer. Truth be told, Arsenal haven't been our rivals for almost a decade, and now that United are not playing well, either, the rivalry is almost nonexistent.
United have been decimated by injuries. Do you expect Arsenal to take advantage?
AM: You could turn that the other way around, too. Arsenal are fielding the most makeshift back four since their march to the Champions League final in 2006, and the incredible thing about that defence was that it didn't let in goals. This season's team is particularly leaky. It's not all down to the defence, obviously, but Arsenal lack a solid platform, as do United. In this game, the emphasis will be on the attack.
SP: You never know whether that lot will show up. Their record against United over the past few years has been poor, regardless of who put the strongest team out on the day, but this is a great opportunity for them to get a win. With all the confirmed injuries and players in doubt for United, it's hard to imagine what sort of starting team Louis van Gaal will be able to cobble together.
Danny Welbeck is bound to score, right? It's in the script ...
AM: Script? Pffft.There's no script -- this is a game of football. He's settled in very well and contributed a lot to Arsenal so far. He should probably have scored a couple more goals than he already has, but he's never yet been found wanting in terms of how hard he works and doing his job for the team overall.
SP: Probably. Welbeck loves United and grew up dreaming of playing for the club. He went wild with his family in his front room in Longsight as an 8-year-old when United won the Champions League in 1999. He's really popular among the fans, and you know that he will always be hoping that United do well. But at the weekend he will of course be looking to get a result for his new team and no doubt will want to show Van Gaal what he's missing out on. Fair play to him for being ambitious and brave enough to leave the club he loves and is so familiar with to go somewhere that is better for his career.
Look at the opposition. Who would you take in your XI?
AM: Despite the need for defenders, I don't think anyone in the United side would improve Arsenal, assuming everyone's fit. Arsenal also need a defensive midfielder, so maybe you could make a case for Daley Blind, but he's still new to English football, and I haven't seen enough of him to make a judgment.
SP: I was gutted when I heard United passed on Mesut Ozil and allowed him to go to Arsenal. He's a brilliant player, but it's not really worked out for him. Maybe if Arsene Wenger used him properly it would be different and Van Gaal could get the best out of him.
Alexis Sanchez is obviously a quality player, too, but he wouldn't offer anything too different from what United already have when the squad is fully fit. They're so thin on the ground defensively that Mathieu Debuchy or Laurent Koscielny would probably help. I really like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, though. His injury record makes him a prime candidate for United, too.
So who's finishing higher this season?
AM: I don't know. Both teams are strong in attack, weak in defence. It probably comes down to who can manage injuries and the January transfer window best.
SP: I'll be optimistic and say United. It's not going brilliantly well for Van Gaal at the moment, but I fancy him to get it together once a more established starting XI plays without weekly injuries forcing changes.
AM: 2-2. United to score first on the counterattack as Arsenal give the ball away. The Gunners will then take the lead with just a few minutes to go before Robin van Persie nicks an equaliser.
SP: Very similar! 2-2 -- Van Persie or Welbeck to get a late equaliser.