By the time Manchester United’s team bus rolls into the Emirates on Sunday, Arsenal will have had a full seven days to rest, recuperate and analyse.
They will have had ample opportunity to shake off any niggling injuries, recover from the ignominy of a woeful defeat and had plenty of opportunity to pore over just why they were so outclassed against Tottenham.
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester side, by contrast, are in action tonight (Thursday) against Celta Vigo in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final. The Portuguese’s injury-hit draw-specialists will have to go the full 90 minutes before having to make the trip to the Emirates on Sunday, scarcely three full days later.
In stark contrast to their hosts, United will not have the luxury of much rest, preparation, or time to re-focus. They may even suffer a fresh injury or two in their bid to win the second-tier European competition and a back-door ticket into the Champions League.
Whichever way you slice it, Arsenal are in a real position of strength. It’s the first time in a while that I can remember a Gunners side having such a marked advantage in rest and preparation time over an opponent ahead of such a big game.
While most of us now accept that the Gunners sneaking into the top four is more or less a lost cause, it remains a possibility and this mentally bruised and battered team must still do everything in its power to get a result.
They should have been stung in defeat to Tottenham, which was as insipid a performance as you are ever likely to see in a North London Derby. They should be desperate to make amends for such a lacklustre performance and a crack at an under-strength and fatigued Manchester United side should present them with the perfect opportunity to do so.
In my mind, there is no real excuse for Arsene Wenger’s men not to get a positive result in this fixture. Even with their glaring and obvious shortcomings as a collective unit, there should be enough fight and desire, and more than enough juice left in the tank, to allow them to perform at or near their best. Even in injury terms, we have been relatively fortunate this year, with no major pile-up of the wounded and decrepit to stunt our progress.
As good as he is tactically, Jose Mourinho is rarely the master of surprise so we already know that he will set his side up with a bank of six buses parked in front of his goal. He will deny the Gunners any space and time and will seek to harry them into submission from the first whistle. It is a trick Jose has tried – with a great deal of success, I might add – for the better part of a decade, in various guises and with various teams.
He has long had the better of Wenger simply because Arsenal have failed time and again to prove themselves capable of breaking down the 11-man defence.
Whether United park the bus this time around or not, it simply won’t wash as an excuse for not getting a positive result. If Tottenham was a match we couldn’t afford to lose, this is a game where only a win will do. Anything else will stick a huge pin in the remainder of our season and will, in a likelihood, see us slip into freefall in the league.
It doesn’t matter how negatively United set up, or how well drilled they are on the pitch, this as good an opportunity as Arsenal have had to score a big victory over United and Mourinho for a long time. The team and the management should be well aware of that and that, in and of itself, should be motivation enough for them to succeed.
We are well and truly in last chance saloon this weekend and the only way to get ourselves out is to start firing.