Arsenal vs Manchester United: Could this one be a top four decider?

Unai Emery might be keen to downplay it but, for me, Arsenal’s top four challenge has reached a seminal moment.

Though victory over Manchester United on Sunday won’t guarantee us a place in next season’s Champions League, defeat would leave us with a mountain to climb and relying on a favour from others.

It won’t be the end, but it will take us to the precipice.

Frankly, a four-point gap at this stage of the season, and with United on the sort of run they are currently enjoying, could be insurmountable. There is many a slip betwixt cup and lip, of course, but you can’t rely on dodgy lasagnes every year.

On paper we have quite an appealing run in between now and the end of the campaign but our fickle away form means there are banana skins at every turn. For that reason alone, we have to take maximum points from our home fixtures and that includes against United. A draw wouldn’t be a disaster but it would put more pressure on our fixtures away from home and we simply don’t cope well with that on the road.

In his pre-match press conference, Emery spoke about learning from the FA Cup clash in January and I sincerely hope he has. He has shown himself to be fairly astute tactically, and not wedded to playing the same way in every scenario.

As results down the years have shown, United are the masters of the counter-attacking win at Arsenal and it was a trap we fell into all-too-readily at the turn of the year.

There was an element of misfortune in the way we spurned the chances that came our way in that game but our naivety cost us dearly again.

While we can’t play deep and counter attack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side at the Emirates, we can be a great deal smarter in how we go about our business.

There is no doubt in my mind that United will look to play exactly the same way again on Sunday that they did earlier in the year. Why wouldn’t they? If they can stay compact and defend their box well, they give themselves a good platform to launch the sort of lightning raids that caught us cold.

Having learned a sharp lesson at Solskjaer’s hands, it will be interesting to see how Emery attempts to offset the obvious risk and spring the trap that will be laid for him. Happily, United will be without some of the personnel who make their system so effective but, let’s not forget, they caused an enormous upset in Paris with a team of part-timers and school boys.

I can’t help but feel that a performance on a par with the victory over Spurs last year will be needed to get the maximum reward from this game. We will need 100 per cent from all 11 and, in all likelihood, from our three on the bench as well.

I can understand that there will be some tired legs in our ranks after a quite hectic run of matches but a touch of squad rotation in recent months should hopefully mean there is enough in the tank to get through this period.

The crowd will also play a big part in settling this match. An atmosphere like the one we saw against Spurs is difficult to generate week after week but it has such a demonstrable effect on performance that you always wish you could flick a switch when most needed.

I have a feeling Gunners won’t need too much motivating to cause a bit of a din but performance and atmosphere at the Emirates often go hand-in-hand. The crowd will need plenty from the players in order to stoke the flames so let’s hope everybody is on the same page.

However calm the manager is trying to be, there is a certain magnitude to Sunday that cannot be denied. We have produced some gutsy, eye-catching performances this season (and some abject ones too) and we will need to be at our best to get all three points. In many ways, the course of our season depends on it.

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