Three key battles in Arsenal v Man United
Mata v Monreal
You would think it’s fairly safe to assume that in-form Nacho Monreal will start this crunch clash ahead of Kieran Gibbs, but Arsene Wenger’s selection policy seems somewhat irrational at present. If Monreal does start Sunday’s game at left-back, then the tussle between him and his countryman Juan Mata – currently operating on the right side of United’s midfield – will be an intriguing one. Mata has been a heavy influence in United’s recent string of good results. In Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Wolfsburg in the Champions League, he completed an outstanding 98 per cent of his passes, scored from the penalty spot and created Chris Smalling’s goal with audacious flick over the defence. Monreal will have to curb some of instinctive attacking play to ensure Mata is deprived of the time and space he was given by the German side. Jose Mourinho’s decision to sell the 27-year-old is looking more costly by the game as United sit top of the Premier League while Chelsea languish in 14th place.
Walcott v Smalling
England defender Chris Smalling is approaching the form of his career but he is sure to have his work cut out against the lightning pace of Theo Walcott. Arsenal will be hurting badly after suffering a second straight Champions League defeat this week but if there is a silver lining to that cloud, it’s that Walcott is still scoring. Manchester United’s defence was sliced apart by Wolfsburg for their first goal and ITV pundit Lee Dixon was particularly critical of Smalling’s role in the goal. The centre-half was drawn out of position leaving a gaping hole which the German’s exploited. He will have to be more disciplined against the Gunners because Walcott will look to hover in his blind-spot before making short sprints as he looks to latch on to the end of one-touch passing moves that Arsenal love to create. United will probably sit deep in an attempt to nullify the England striker’s speed and use their own pace to pick the home side off on the counter.
Martial v Arsenal defence
Had Anthony Martial arrived on the scene 15 years ago and cost a tenth of the potential £58m transfer fee, you can guarantee he would have been wearing the red and white of Arsenal, rather than the red and black of Manchester United. But with Wenger’s refusal to dip into the transfer war-chest at his disposal and United’s desperation to end their two-year trophy ‘drought’, the 19-year-old Frenchman is now tearing up the league for the Old Trafford side. Martial appears to have it all. He’s a powerful runner, has upper body strength, shooting accuracy and dynamism. Crucially he also understands how Louis van Gaal wants his team to play. They are finally playing with a directness and verve missing since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and Martial is a large factor. Arsenal’s defence, having just shipped three goals to an Olympiakos team who had previously never won on English soil, must frankly be very worried at the prospect of United turning up. Laurent Koscielny is a major doubt, thus leaving the lumbering Per Mertesacker to marshall Martial. Expect goals.