“They do not know how strong we are,” declared the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger at half time during Tuesday night’s one-sided encounter between the Londoners and Barcelona at Camp Nou. Yet, as Arsenal slumped to defeat against the Catalans for the second time in as many seasons a certain sense of inevitability played out. The Londoners’ fragile resolve crumbled, as it always seems to on the biggest occasions, with Barc¸a thoroughly dominating the match.
Predictably Wenger blamed referee Massimo Busacca for Robin van Persie’s second half dismissal, claiming that Arsenal would have won bar for the Dutchman’s red card. It is, of course, a huge red herring; a ruse designed to mask the Frenchman’s own failings. Arsenal, as Pep Guardiola so succinctly put it, couldn’t string three passes together on the biggest of occasions. Much as Wenger has added steel to his side this season – nine red cards attests to that – few expect the Londoners to rise to the occasion.
Surely then, with Arsenal battered from the Carling Cup final loss against Birmingham City and European elimination, Saturday’s FA Cup fifth round tie at Old Trafford is the perfect occasion for United to break Arsenal’s season. Indeed, victory could perhaps terminally end Wenger’s hopes of a first trophy in nearly six years. After all, elimination from a third competition inside a month would destroy the confidence of even the mentally strongest sides. Durable, Arsenal is not.
It is not as simple as all that of course. While Arsenal’s defeat was a lesson in predictability, Saturday’s tie is anything but given each side’s calamities in recent weeks. United’s own confidence is under threat too of course, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side having lost three of the last five Premier League fixtures. The capitulation at Stamford Bridge was painful; humiliation at Anfield a huge blow to the squad’s resolve.
Indeed, Ferguson’s media black out this week is, perhaps, as much an attempt to refocus his squad as it is childish retaliation against a perceived press enemy. Circling the wagons may well foster that ephemeral team spirit, although it can do little for his side’s quality. Or lack thereof in recent weeks.
Add injury to key players and Ferguson’s temptation to rest others and there is no guarantee of success over Wenger’s battered troops though. With Rio Ferdinand still on the sidelines, Nani out for a fortnight with a deep dash to his left leg, and Park Ji-Sung, Anderson and Jonny Evans all missing, Ferguson is still without half-a-dozen senior pros.
Better news concerns Antonio Valencia, who may yet player some part against the Gunners, although there is little guarantee the 25-year-old Ecuadorian will immediately replace Nani’s creativity in the United side. Valencia was due to play in United’s 2-1 reserves’ defeat at Blackpool on Wednesday but was pulled out of the fixture after United’s coaching staff assessed the pitch. It’s a tougher ask still to replace Nani’s 14 goal assists this season.
Then there is Ferguson’s temptation to rest key players, with the FA Cup taking a back seat to Premier and Champions League campaigns. Indeed, with Marseille coming up at Old Trafford next Wednesday United’s senior players – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar – will probably only play in the European tie.
Moreover, the FA Cup tie comes in the middle of a Premier League title race in which all pretenders’ inconsistency means there is no genuine front-runner. United’s three-point lead is countered by the Gunners’ match in hand and Chelsea’s renewed belief. United must also face Arsenal at the Emirates and Chelsea at Old Trafford before the season draws to a close. At this stage, few can confidently predict a positive outcome in either of those matches.
The upcoming Champions League fixture, in common with United’s rash of injuries, means that fringe squad members including Darron Gibson, Gabriel Obertan and Bébé will almost certainly play some part against Wenger’s outfit. Given that trio’s performances this season, it’s a frightening thought.
The question is whether Ferguson can balance a squad thin on resources with the cataclysmic effect of losing a third match in a row. If the Scot thought press coverage in the wake of defeat to Chelsea and Liverpool was not to his liking then tales of ‘United in crisis’ will surely follow an Arsenal victory at Old Trafford.