The FA Cup Final
Arsenal's probable line-up: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Senderos, Cole, Fabregas, Silva, Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp, Reyes.
Man Utd's probable line-up: Howard, Phil/Gary Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre, Giggs, Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney, VNR
Arsenal have become stronger towards the end of the season, the inquiry into the tapping-up allegations wouldn't have hindered much in Arsene Wenger's preparation, Cole is designed for the left-back role and holds it without problem. The England plays his normal game when he gets on the pitch, immaterial of off-field issues, which is why he is well sought after. Phillippe Senderos and Kolo Toure have formed a firm partnership in the absence of Sol Campbell. the former Tottenham man is back from injury but has to wait as the two centre-backs show little signs of incompatibility. The return of Gilberto Silva from injury has been a boost while Mathieu Flamini deputised, and Edu could still feature if necessary. Thierry Henry missing out was unexpected some 5-6 games ago, the Frenchman hardly misses a game, but Jose Antonio Reyes and respected figure Dennis Bergkamp have skill, vision and shooting power to compensate upfront.
Man Utd face replacing their two first-choice full-backs through injury, Gabriel Heinze and Gary Neville. Neville is a doubt and I expect he will be replaced by his brother Phil, unless Sir Alex is playing games and we find Gary Neville is OK to start. I expect Tim Howard to replace Roy Carroll, Carroll for me didn't look comfortable at St. Mary's last Sunday, particularly in dealing with the cross that conceded Southampton's goal. Mikael Silvestre fills in at left-back, Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown hold firmly in the middle. I expect Sir Alex to want to have a firm, strong tenacious midfield that will create often and therefore stem any chance Arsenal seek to keep possession and build up from the rear forwards. Ryan Giggs and Christian Ronaldo have skill, pace and can cross well and I expect duels with Lauren and Ashley Cole respectively. Keane and Scholes clamp down on anything in the middle of the park as usual. Wayne Rooney is given a free role behind Ruud Van Nistelrooy to keep either Silva or Toure/Senderos occupied. VNR is expected to fight and battle his way through, as usual, against one or two markers.
This is, for me, the penultimate match of the season, as I look forward to Wednesday's Champions League Final, and you could hardly receive a better match as such than Arsenal v Manchester United. Identical to Chelsea v Liverpool this season, both the Gunners and the Red Devils have met three times and Utd have won them all, so revenge is in the air from the Gunners on a huge scale. Talk has mentioned of eagerly awaiting the scenes in the tunnel as Vieira and Keane come into close vicinity of each other, but for that reason nothing will happen. Simply, the last time at Highbury, Vieira came off the loser in a big way and Wenger is poised to ensure his players keep themselves focused on exerting adrenaline and energy on the pitch instead. Wenger has pointed out Utd's hard tactics on Reyes particularly, Sir Alex retorts that it's a physical game and Arsenal have plenty of players who participate likewise.
Arsenal's game doesn't entirely deploy through Reyes and if he is being targeted they could have used other channels to break down Utd. Wenger has stated the Spaniard is feeling stronger and will be able to withstand more physical contact than before. If Utd's plan is to hustle Reyes off the ball entirely, the likes of Bergkamp and Vieira will find other ways of utilising Reyes once he is in open space. But Utd's focus will not solely be on Reyes. Both teams have the ability to keep possession and move quickly, I sense Arsenal are better at it than Utd, so Utd could well be under pressure from the kick-off and will look to keep shape to snub out Arsenal's attempts to get forward for the first 10-15mins and then push back on the Gunners. From then on, the game will be tight.
Arsenal's weak link is at the back. Lehmann is their no.1 but still to be thoroughly tested and yet to establish his prowess in the league. His performance will depend on Utd's pressure on his goal. Lauren is usually reliable, good coming forward and can infiltrate behind the left-back to cross very well but if Utd are physical with him, his temperament is questionable. Toure and Senderos have an understanding but under firm pressure at close quarters either defender can be open to a mistake, which can be detrimental with the strengths and pace that Rooney and VNR like to threaten with.
Utd's weak link is equally at the back. Once focused, Ferdinand keeps cool and tidies up, no nonsense, reads the threat and uses his frame to defend hard, clears. My only doubt about him comes from his positioning for Chelsea's second goal at Old Trafford. Also, I'd prefer Silvestre to Brown with Ferdinand, the Frenchman has been erratic at times before but I find him more reliable than Brown. One could point to Rooney's temperament as another minus point for United but I'm not so sure for today's game. I imagine Sir Alex speaking to him in the dressing-room to channel any frustration through his boots, as he clearly did when he scored against Newcastle at home.
This is another encounter that is tight to call. Both sides have good attacking players and defending is of an above average level, but Arsenal have developed more flair in their play recently while Utd have hit a blip and seem yet to fully find theirs. I'm sensing an Arsenal win, possibly 2-1.