Manchester United v Arsenal: Will it be another FA Cup classic?
Manchester United v Arsenal, FA Cup quarter-final, Old Trafford, Saturday March 12, 5.15pm (Live on ITV1)
THERE was something not quite right about the last time Arsenal met Manchester United in the FA Cup.
Whenever the two giants have collided before in the old competition during the reigns of Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson, the sparks have flown on the pitch as well as off it.
The 2005 final had seen Arsenal reduced to 10 men before holding out for a 0-0 draw and winning a dramatic penalty shoot-out in Cardiff.
In 2004 the Gunners were denied the chance of reaching a fourth successive final by Paul Scholes’ winner in a bad-tempered affair at Villa Park.
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The year before that Arsenal had silenced Old Trafford with a 2-0 win in the fifth round, a victory made a little bit more famous by David Beckham leaving the stadium with an infamous gash in his forehead, caught by a flying boot from his irate manager.
And then, of course, there was perhaps the most famous FA Cup meeting of recent times, the 1999 semi-final, also at Villa Park, when Ryan Giggs’ sublime goal broke Arsenal hearts and set United on course for their historic treble.
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But the fifth-round meeting at Old Trafford in February 2008 certainly did not live up to those occasions.
Arsenal sent out a side that included the likes of Justin Hoyte and Armand Traore in defence, had Emmanuel Eboue sent off four minutes into the second half, and were thrashed 4-0.
It was an ignominious exit for the Gunners who, if truth be told, were a little more focused on the upcoming Champions League last-16 game with AC Milan, a tie they won only to then be knocked out at the quarter-final stage by Liverpool.
This time Arsenal head to Old Trafford with their Champions League exertions behind them, while it is United who have next week’s second leg against Marseille on their minds.
And then you have to factor in the small matter that the two teams are locked together at the top of the Premier League table in a race for the title that looks set to go the distance.
Having already beaten Arsenal 1-0 at Old Trafford in December, United know they can gain the psychological upper hand by inflicting a second defeat on Wenger’s side ahead of the pivotal league trip to the Emirates on May 1.
Arsenal will undoubtedly be thinking the same while the priority, lest we forget, is that there is also a place in the FA Cup semi-finals and a return trip to Wembley at stake.
The big question would appear to be what strength teams the two managers send out on Saturday. Arsenal are ravaged by injuries but will surely play as strong a side as possible given that they have their first free midweek in 2011 after this game, and now only have two possible routes to silverware this season.
United need to be a little more cautious with Marseille due at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. However, given their back-to-back defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool, Ferguson is unlikely to be in charitable mood.
His big problems are in defence, where Rio Ferdinand continues to be sidelined by a calf injury and has not played since February 1.
Nemanja Vidic is available again after missing the defeat at Anfield through suspension, and will probably be partnered at the back by Chris Smalling if Ferdinand does not return.
In goal, Ferguson has used reserve keepers Anders Lindegaard and Tomasz Kuszczak in the FA Cup so far this season, but don’t be too surprised if regular No1 Edwin van der Sar appears in this game. Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio Da Silva may both play at full-back, although John O’Shea and first choice left-back Patrice Evra may get the nod.
Midfield trio Anderson (knee), Ji-Sung Park (hamstring) and Nani (gashed leg) are all doubts, so the veterans Paul Scholes and Giggs may start, although Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick are the younger and the likes of Darron Gibson and Gabriel Obertan are also FA Cup regulars.
Up front, Ferguson may not wish to risk Wayne Rooney from the start, and the Mexican Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov have been in far better goalscoring form anyway.
Arsenal have not won at Old Trafford in their last five visits since a 1-0 in back in September 2006. With United having an eye on Europe, they will never have a better chance to repeat that feat, but morale is low after the humbling in Barcelona and a replay looks the best they can hope for.
Prediction: United 2 Arsenal 2