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United underdogs for Arsenal clash
A giddy Arsenal heads into a massive clash with Manchester United (live, Sunday, 11:10 a.m. ET) here at iconic Old Trafford, ready to cap off what keeper Wojciech Szczesny said would be a "perfect week."
Szczesny, in an interview on Arsenal.com, said that, "It would be amazing to get nine points from these three games, when probably not a lot of people expected us to do. There is not a better time for us to go to Old Trafford. We are very confident and enjoying our football, so we are looking forward to it."
He is not exaggerating. Arsenal are soaring after last weekend’s dominant 2-0 win over Liverpool that exposed the Reds’ midfield weaknesses and blunted the fearsome attack of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. The Gunners then followed it up by making history at Dortmund, becoming the first English side to win at last year’s finalists in a Champions League match.
The performances were very different: at Emirates, Arsenal were a fluent attacking side; in Germany they struck on a classic counter. But taken together, they illustrate a side that has become markedly cooler under pressure, and far more flexible to boot.
Man United have only lost one of their last nine meetings against Arsenal (Image:WhoScored.com).
Last season, Arsenal seemed to run down blind alleys, unable to find quality in the final third and all-too reliant on the speed of Theo Walcott to change games. But even as the English winger carried the Gunners into a Champions League slot on the final day of the season, an air of gloom hung over the London side: after all, their manager publicly stated that their goal was to finish fourth. These diminished, if entirely reasonable, expectations sat uneasily with a restless fan base that has gone since 2005 without a trophy. More than once, Arsene Wenger’s future was called into question.
What changed? It’s easy to point to the signing of Mesut Ozil, arguably the best transfer this year in the Premier League. Ozil’s flair and passing ability have liberated Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud while taking pressure off Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky. Aaron Ramsey, so hamstrung in seasons past, is a player reborn and at present is irrepressible. But that fails to tell the whole tale.
Equally key to Arsenal’s run of form is the re-emergence of Szczesny as a top-class goalkeeper. The talented and cocky Pole has ceased making the mistakes that plagued him last season, and his positioning has noticeably improved. While he is still capable of being cheeky – he made a rash kick-out around Sturridge last weekend that almost proved costly – by and large, he is now a commanding presence. Many credit his new maturity to his father’s influence. Maciej, once a Poland national team keeper as well, has spent much of the last year working with his son on his game, and the attention has shown.
Credit must also go to assistant Steve Bould for bringing steel to the back line. Last year’s confusion and the apparent lack of communication in the middle has vanished as Per Mertesacker has seized the role of on-field General. Never the fastest, Mertesacker has made up for that with an astute sense of how the game develops, and his work alongside Laurent Koscielny has been rock-solid.
The news is not so good for United, which currently sit eight points off the top and really need a major win over a quality side. In their last three games against such opposition -- Chelsea, Manchester City and archrivals Liverpool -- they have taken just one point from a possible nine. Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand both sounded defiant notes at United’s midweek press conference, but there is a sense that the Red Devils are the underdogs this time out in their own backyard.
Some of United’s failings were predictable: their best players have aged out and a number of the new recruits have failed to impress. Robin van Persie, so important a season ago, is struggling, hampered by nagging toe and groin injuries that have the striker reportedly taking injections pre-game for the pain. Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic look very creaky at the back, which puts pressure on the solid but still young David De Gea in the nets. And while the young Adnan Januzaj has been a bright spot, United look to be very weak from the center of their defense through the heart of their midfield. Their biggest signing, Marouane Fellaini, has been a bust. Winger Ashley Young has again been snared by controversy after he was seen to dive Tuesday night in United’s Champions League match. And manager David Moyes doesn’t seem like he’s getting a lot of sleep.
United’s biggest problem is that they have lost a huge advantage: simply put, no one fears this team, and everyone is now coming to Old Trafford thinking they can get a win. That’s a seismic change, and it has rattled what was once the most assured and confident side in European football. Teams such as West Brom and Southampton have shown that United can be thrown off their game, and the celebrations that greeted United’s victory over Stoke –- Stoke!! -– at home were an indication of just how far this team has slipped.
The mood here in Manchester, in fact, is gloomy. The conversation on the streets of Salford and in the pubs around Old Trafford has an air of resignation. One punter actually ventured that it is "easier" to support City these days. Should Arsenal win on Sunday -- hardly a given – that mood will darken further. Manchester United would be 11 points off the top in November, with a mountain to climb.
And Arsenal? They would have enjoyed a quite perfect week, indeed.
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