Neil Humphreys: Misfire again and Gunners can forget about title
If Gunners crack at Old Trafford again, their title hopes could go up in smoke
MAN UNITED v ARSENAL (Tonight, 10.05pm, Singtel TV Ch 102)
Sir Alex Ferguson nailed Arsenal to the wall when he spoke of bravery and backsides.
"It's getting tickly now," he famously said, "squeaky-bum time."
As a soundbite, it was second to none. As a withering criticism of his rivals, it was devastating.
Ferguson's forked tongue was Arsene Wenger's kryptonite.
Everyone remembers the expression. Few remember that it was made during the 2003 title chase and was really about Arsenal.
It was always about Arsenal.
Title chasers all have Achilles heels to manage. The Gunners have squeaky bums. Ferguson knew it then. Most neutrals know it now.
Arsenal's mavericks are covered with the sensitive shell of Humpty Dumpty. In case of emergency, they break very easily.
For more than a decade, Wenger has been trying to put them together again, but he has failed.
And if he fails again at Old Trafford, then their title hopes may go up in smoke.
The trip to United comes before next week's visit to White Hart Lane. Victory in at least one of the games is essential.
Defeats in both will shatter Arsenal's brittle confidence and the whispers will spread. Arsenal can't win when it matters. Arsenal are beset on all sides by squeaky bums. Arsenal, as always, must fall.
And Wenger knows it. The Frenchman is acutely aware of the repercussions of yet another defeat at Old Trafford, a former fortress that has come to epitomise Arsenal's fragile mental state.
Danny Welbeck's winner in the FA Cup fifth round at Old Trafford last year was significant in its rarity. In the Premier League, Arsenal haven't won at United since September 2006.
The eight games since that victory make for damning reading - six defeats and two draws. The Gunners shrink in the shadow of Old Trafford.
Wenger alluded to the magnitude of the occasion on Friday.
"It is the most interesting period in the season," he said. "It is the time you can show desire and nerves."
At a critical juncture, Arsenal are showing not enough of one and too much of the other.
Once the euphoria of Welbeck's romantic winner against league leaders Leicester City in the 2-1 victory on Feb 11 had dissipated, reality hit hard.
The Gunners failed to score against both Hull City and Barcelona. Their tentativeness around the penalty box was more reflective of where they really are right now.
Leicester felt like a fluke. Hull and Barcelona felt like the old, flaky Arsenal.
Following the well-read script of previous seasons, the Gunners have picked the title run-in to mislay their scoring boots. Their finishing has often been dreadful.
Wenger's men have drawn a blank in five of their last eight matches in all competitions and, unlike their opponents at Old Trafford, lack an injury crisis as a get-out clause.
Welbeck, Joel Campbell, Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were fit and available for both Hull and Barcelona.
Sanchez's frustrating rustiness has remained since returning from injury and Oxlade-Chamberlain has since been ruled out, but Wenger isn't short on strikers.
Arsenal's perennial problem isn't one of personnel, but precision. They miss far too many for a team challenging for the title.
Mesut Oezil must feel like a father who's spent hours assembling a new bicycle only to watch his wobbling son fall off in the park and send his handiwork into the duck pond.
Poor Giroud continues to demonstrate that he's a world-class striker only in the mind of his eternally patient manager. His negligent finishing was lost in the Welbeck hoopla, but the Frenchman was presented with enough opportunities to end Leicester's resistance.
But he spurned them all, relying instead on substitutes Welbeck and Walcott to bail him out.
In essence, Giroud encapsulates the shortcomings of his side.
He's strong, athletic, committed and can be devastating in front of goal (particularly in less prestigious games that do not quite jangle the nerves).
Until the New Year, the Frenchman was finally living up to his manager's expectations, but he hasn't hit the target since Jan 13.
Giroud has picked the wrong time of the season to stop scoring. But his struggles are symptomatic of a team traditionally unsure of themselves during the last leg of the title race, particularly against fellow contenders.
When Arsenal step through the Old Trafford tunnel, self-belief leaves the building. That must change.
If the Gunners cannot subdue an injury-ravaged United side sprinkled with wide-eyed kids and weary veterans, then they are likely to succumb to their eternal insecurities.
A rival will end up with the silverware. Arsenal will be left with the squeaky bums.
It would be a massive win for (Man United) to beat us. But we’re going to be ready.
— Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin
- West Ham v Sunderland
- Leicester v Norwich
- Southampton v Chelsea
- Stoke v Aston Villa
- Watford v Bournemouth
- West Brom v Crystal Palace
- Man United v Arsenal
- Tottenham v Swansea
Wenger: let's show our quality
Seven games in 22 days.
Arsene Wenger has admitted that this crucial period will make or break Arsenal's season.
Following the 2-0 last-16, first-leg loss to Barcelona in the Champions League in midweek and a goalless FA Cup fifth-round draw at home to Hull last weekend, Arsenal return to league action at Manchester United tomorrow.
The Gunners go into the weekend just two points off the top of the table but, with an FA Cup replay and the return leg in Spain to come, they face a stern test of their mettle and stamina.
"It is the key period," he said. "We work the whole season for this period and that's where you're really tested but it's where you have an opportunity to show your quality as well.
"On that front, I agree that it is the most interesting period of the season.
"It's a period of the season where you can show quality, nerves and desire as well.
"Everybody drops points. It is unpredictable. We have rebuilt a good run in the Premier League and we need to continue that. We need to get over the disappointment of the result in the Champions League.
"We need to focus on the Premier League where we have a big part to play. How many points that will be needed, we don't know.
"Let's not set any limit on the number of points we can get."
While Arsenal are chasing a first league title in 12 years, United are now outsiders for finishing in the top four with Louis van Gaal's side winning just two of their last six league games.
They were also thoroughly outplayed in a 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium last October.
The Dutchman's position remains under threat despite a week that saw them advance in the FA Cup and Europa League and, while Wenger still sees a trip to Old Trafford as a glamour fixture, he also offered his sympathy to van Gaal's plight.
"I do not want to speak too much about Man United because we are more focused on us and preparing for an important game. Of course, he (van Gaal) has my respect and my sympathy," he added.
"What can you do? Not a lot but do your job and use your potential of resistance to stress and focus on your job.
"Man United are a big club, Old Trafford is a special place and I believe for every club it remains a special fixture."
Wenger also revealed that winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be sidelined for as long as seven weeks, but has backed the Arsenal winger to return in time for the European Championships in the summer. - PA Sport.