Europe it is then after Liverpool’s draw at Chelsea last weekend effectively sealed Manchester United’s position in next season’s Champions League; the Merseysiders’ home defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday confirmed it. Louis van Gaal’s side is likely to finish fourth this season, although could yet sneak third should United defeat Arsenal at Old Trafford this weekend and the Gunners drop more points before the season concludes.
Fourth, says Van Gaal, was the target set for the campaign in a season that has ultimately proven more successful than last, although once again United will finish without silverware. Still, United’s return to the continent’s premier competition should enable the club to attract further talent this summer, with Van Gaal keen to rebalance a squad that has struggled to retain a core of fit players this year. Nor, it seems, enable the Dutchman to play a consistent formation each week.
In defence Van Gaal is seeking both an experienced central defender and a new right-back, while the club will also purchase a long-term replacement for the ageing Michael Carrick. Memphis Depay will add both assists and goals, but Van Gaal may also press his board for a new forward, with Wayne Rooney the club’s top scorer this season on just 14 goals.
By contrast Arsene Wenger’s side has been relatively free-scoring this season, with 16 more goals in the Premier League than United. It is a strike-rate that may just see Arsenal pip United to third place and avoid a mid-August European play-off.
Whatever the outcome, Van Gaal is keen to talk up a campaign of some progress, with United finishing at least three places ahead of last season’s dismal effort. With 68 points gained, Van Gaal’s team is four ahead of last season with two games to play.
“We sat together, myself and the board, and set the goal, which was to finish in the first four,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“We have reached that two games before the end of the season, which is not bad I think. I think it was a big challenge. When I came here, there were a lot of players here and we have let go of 15 players and bought only five players.
“So, I think we did very good, but it is not good enough because, at the end, we want to be champions. Now we want to be third because that is still possible. We can put pressure on Arsenal. It is always tricky because we can say we have qualified ourselves for the Champions League, but it is not true. We have to play again before the entrance in the Champions League.”
Similarly, Wenger is keen to end any hope United retains of overtaking the Gunners. While Arsenal have regularly featured in the Champions League play-off round over the past decade, United hasn’t been forced to qualify for the group stage since beating Zalaegerszeg over two legs in 2002..
Wenger’s side holds a two-point lead over United with a game in hand. The north London side faces Sunderland and then West Bromwich Albion at home to finish the Premier League campaign, before taking on Aston Villa in the FA Cup final on 30 May. It is a run that should seal third place for the London outfit.
“It’s very important for your season preparations not to have that kind of stress of the play-off over your head from the first day you start again,” said Wenger.
“We know what it means and we know it’s always tricky, because you can play against teams who are in the middle of their championship when you are in preparation. It is the pressure and the consequences of not qualifying that are massive.”
On the pitch Van Gaal welcomes back Angel di Maria, Robin van Persie and Marcos Rojo, but the Dutchman is without a clutch of players including Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Rafael da Silva and Luke Shaw. The latter trio will not play again this season, while Rooney is at best an outside bet to make United’s final game of the campaign against Hull City next weekend.
Van Persie could start up front, though with his time at United running down Radamel Falcao is also pushing for a place. Van Gaal could push his Dutch compatriot into a deeper role or bring Di Maria into the side.
Meanwhile, Shaw has suffered a difficult season at Old Trafford, starting 18 games for United in all competitions, but missing out on more than 20 – mostly through minor injuries. The player is, says Van Gaal, approaching burn-out after playing in 35 Premier League games for Southampton last season and travelling to Brazil for the summer World Cup with England.
“He has over-crossed his limits this season. He’s 19-years-old – what do you expect? We have to protect him,” said Van Gaal, who wants the player to miss this summer’s European under-21 championships.
“You cannot avoid injuries like Rooney and Shaw because football is with physical resistance and also a little bit of luck, or you are unlucky maybe. In the second part of the season, I am satisfied. We have had in the first part of the season an average of 10 injuries a week and I could never line up the same team, so I’m happy with that now.”
By contrast Wenger boasts a largely fit squad, with only former Red Danny Welbeck missing out through injury. Welshman Aaron Ramsey returned to training on Friday and should feature.
The Reds haven’t lost at home to Arsenal in the Premier League since September 2006, winning six of seven fixtures in the process, although Arsenal won in Manchester in March, knocking United out of the FA Cup. Still, Van Gaal’s side boasts a strong home record this season despite losing to West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford a fortnight ago. Only Chelsea has secured more points at home this season and, despite a recent run of three successive defeats, Van Gaal’s side has won seven of its last eight league games at Old Trafford.
Wenger can point to a similar level of strength on the road, with his side picking up more points away from home than any side bar Premier League champions Chelsea. It is a record that owes much to Wenger’s decision to change the Londoners’ approach away from home to a more compact counter-attacking style. It should contrast well with United’s fervently patient – sometimes plodding – approach.
Indeed, Arsenal enjoyed a long unbeaten – at home and away – before Swansea City won at the Emirates on Monday night. It should make for a fascinating encounter even if, ultimately, it is a low key match.
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Blind; Herrera; Herrera; Mata, Di Maria, Fellaini, Young; Van Persie
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Ospina; Bellerin, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Cazorla, Coquelin; Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez; Giroud
United: Valdes, McNair, Evans, Jones, Blackett, Januzaj, Lingard, Wilson, Falcao
Arsenal: Szczesny, Chambers, Gabriel, Monreal, Arteta, Diaby, Flamini, Gnabry, Rosicky, Wilshere, Walcott
United 93 – Draw 48 – Arsenal 79
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: L Betts, S Long
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 1 – 1 Arsenal
£1 bet club
Juan Mata to score first, 1-1 draw @ 45/1
Running total: £6.50 up
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