Arsenal and Manchester United both still have their eyes on a top-four finish but a draw would do neither side any good when they meet at the Emirates (4pm Sunday, live on Sky Sports 1).
Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur already have the Premier League’s top two spots all but wrapped up, leaving Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal to scrap over the remaining couple of top-four places. It is a tight race and one that is likely to go right down to the wire.
Arsenal still have a game in hand on those ahead of them but while their fate was once in their own hands, even a run of five consecutive victories in their remaining fixtures would now not guarantee them a top-four finish. They have won just four of their last 11 matches in the league and come into this fixture on the back of last weekend’s comprehensive derby defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.
That loss means that they will finish the campaign behind their North-London rivals for the first time since 1995. It has also put into further jeopardy the continuation of their run of 19 consecutive seasons in the top four. Supporters continue to call for Arsene Wenger to leave at the end of the season and in truth his position will be very difficult to maintain if a top-four finish is not achieved.
The results tell their own story but it is not just at that level that Arsenal have regressed during the second half of the campaign. They are scoring less goals and conceding more, which is never a good combination. While they still have individuals capable of producing moments of genuine quality to swing things in their favour, their level of organisation and tactical sharpness leaves them wanting when they come up against the sides they are competing with at the top of the table.
Man Utd have a marginally better chance of making the top four than their hosts – see top 4 betting here – but will be kicking themselves after failing to take advantage of Manchester City’s draw away to Middlesbrough last weekend by only drawing themselves at home to Swansea. This was not, though, the familiar tale this season of United dominating territory and shots on home soil only to fail to take their chances; Swansea gave almost as good as they got and deserved their point.
It was nevertheless another disappointing result for Jose Mourinho’s side in what has been an up-and-down campaign despite another summer of big spending. While he has certainly righted a number of the wrongs that were evident in Louis van Gaal’s final season in charge, upping the shot count and making United more solid defensively, it has not yet translated into the expected results.
That could of course change with time. With further reinforcements at the end of the campaign, Man Utd should be in a stronger position to challenge next time around. But the general lack of flair in their play means that there also remains somewhat of a stylistic tension between coach and club that improved results are only likely to go so far towards softening.
It should be noted that Sir Alex Ferguson was himself not immune to adopting a more conservative approach in big matches. Indeed, he secured a number of strong results against Arsenal by doing just that, favouring hard-working and dependable players capable of carrying out specific tasks that prevented Arsenal playing their football and allowed United to strike quickly on the break. Previous clashes between Wenger and Mourinho suggest Sunday’s match will follow a similar pattern.
The 1-1 draw between the sides in November extended Mourinho’s unbeaten record against Wenger to 12 league matches. Tensions have often flared between the two and with the opportunity to continue competing for a top-four finish on the line, Sunday’s match is likely to be another tight and tense encounter.
United have drawn far too many matches this season but are still in better form than the Gunners and have the right structure and approach to hold off Arsenal’s attacks and then profit from the space that should open up for them on the counter-attack. Even with the extra fatigue accrued in Thursday’s Europa League win over Celta Vigo, they should be able to at least take a point from Sunday’s match.