I remember eating my words when Arsenal dominated United at the Emirates. With basically no strikers available except Bendtner, who clearly isn't a good enough player for Arsenal, I had predicted United to win comfortably at the Emirates, only to be shot down by a Nasri brace and a masterclass Arsenal performance. This time, however, it is different, as not everyone expects Arsenal to lose. Arsenal's rejuvenation in the league has been remarkable and I don't think there will be any underestimating of Arsenal in Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
United have a full squad to choose from, with the exception of recently injured Gary Neville and the always injured Hargreaves. Which means Wes Brown, Rafael, and O'Shea are back for this match. This is an added bonus for United, as the Right Back position has been a weakness in the defensive 4 this whole season. Nasri totally owned Gary Neville with his tricks and pace, which was part of the reason why Arsenal had a field day at the Emirates. With no-nonsense Wes Brown, pacey Rafael or clumsy-but-effective O'Shea, United have enough reinforcements at the Right Back area.
Arsenal, however, have a lot of players missing for this match. Arshavin has been a great player since signing for Arsenal and they will miss his creativity and dribbling ability against United. Gallas and Clichy are still out injured for the Arsenal defence, and they also have chronically ill Robin van Persie and Rosicky out. That list is essentially a list of 5 first team players, so Arsenal are considerably weakened. Add to the fact that Gibbs and Silvestre are doubts (but I reckon they'll play in the end), Arsenal have an immense weakness in their defence, and United will look to profit there.
I fancy United to line up with a 4-5-1, and Arsenal might do the same. United have been using the 4-5-1 consistently in the Champions League and the usefulness of the extra midfield cover for the defense shows in the stats - United have kept the most clean sheets in the competition, a grand total of 7, and boast the best defensive record having conceded only 5 goals. I think Arsenal will do likewise, line up with a 4-5-1 and look to counter-attack with pace as it is at Old Trafford, much like how they played against Liverpool at Anfield.
United: Van der Sar - O'Shea - Ferdinand - Vidic - Evra - Carrick - Ronaldo - Giggs - Fletcher - Rooney - Berbatov
Arsenal: Almunia - Sagna - Djourou - Toure - Gibbs - Song - Walcott - Fabregas - Denilson - Nasri - Adebayor
Little or none seperates both goalkeepers. Both have excellent shot stopping abilities and good reflexes. Van der Sar has recovered from his lack of confidence that has plagued him for the past 2 seasons. Now he's claiming crosses well again and showing everyone why he used to be considered a world class goalkeeper. He will be crucial for United to read the game and act as a sweeper, as will Almunia's shot stopping be for Arsenal. Van der Sar definitely has more experience than Almunia and that will play a part in the pressure-cooker environment of the Semis.
Sagna, Djourou, Toure, Gibbs. They aren't exactly the best defenders. Gibbs is young and inexperienced and it showed when he played against Liverpool. Dirk Kuyt and Arbeloa combined well on the right flank and peppered the Arsenal penalty box with crosses. A rash clearance while under pressure led to Liverpool going 2-1 up. While pacey, Gibbs will have a tough time against Ronaldo and the overlapping O'Shea, unless he turns out to be the second coming of Santon. Sagna is a solid player going forward, but he isn't as good defensively. He relies more on his pace to get back rather than defensive reading of the game, and does occasionally get caught out while being high up the pitch. Djourou and Toure are average and not world class. In a nutshell, the Arsenal defence is very shaky at the moment and United will look to exploit that.
United, on the other hand, have the meanest defence in the competition, if not the world. Aside from the problematic right back spot, which O'Shea has filled in decently, the rest of the defence is just filled with awesome. Vidic and Ferdinand have formed a partnership that have can thwart any attacking lineup, while Evra has been solid this entire season (other than against Aaron Lennon). Add to the fact that United can bring on Rafael, who has looked like a great prospect, or Wes Brown, who was alongside Fletcher as my MOM in the match against Barca last season, or Jonny Evans as defensive cover. United definitely have the edge in terms of quality of defenders.
Denilson, Song and Fabregas does not ooze class and confidence. Denilson is far from the finished product and for all his combativeness, he is not an accomplished passer of the ball, or a great tackler. Song is prone to his moments of ball-watching and laziness. Fabregas will be Arsenal's main threat from the midfield, and his great passing ability can unlock any defence. United will have to watch out for him as he has been employed in a more advanced role, like the Gerrard role for Liverpool, and he scored a brace through that over the weekend.
United, on the other hand, will probably play Fletcher, Carrick and Giggs. Perhaps Scholes in place of Carrick. Or maybe Anderson instead of Fletcher. Whatever the permutation, there is class in the midfield for United. Fletcher has featured steadily for the first team and he has put in some great performances in the heart of midfield. He has great energy and is decent going forward as well, not to mention that he is THE big game player. Carrick has grown well into his defensive midfielder role and provides great defensive cover, along with great through balls from midfield. As for the PFA player of the year, well, he single handedly destroyed the Chelsea midfield the famous 3-0 win this season. His ability to beat a man and then pick a pass will definitely be crucial to unlocking the Arsenal defence, as Arsenal will try to crowd out the middle of the park to prevent United from passing the ball to the front trio. One thing that might undo United would be their lack of pace in midfield, and that should be Arsenal's main focal point should both Scholes and Giggs start. I still give the edge to United and think that United have the better midfield and should be able to boss the match.
Nasri and Walcott both possess an abundance of pace and great dribbling ability. Nasri is able to wriggle out of tight spots well, while Walcott has blistering pace and can go past defenders with ease. They will definitely be key men for Arsenal. However, Nasri is not an old-school touchline hugging winger, and I doubt he will torment O'Shea much. He sometimes has a tendency to cut in and, against United, will be moving into a very crowded midfield. I don't fancy Nasri to have much of an impact against United. Walcott is THE man to watch. Aaron Lennon skinned Evra many times and the right side was a hugely profitable area for Spurs. For Arsenal to get something out of the match, Walcott must have a great game.
Ronaldo and Rooney should occupy both Right and Left wing spots. Ronaldo to terrorise Gibbs, and Rooney to provide some defensive cover for Evra. As seen from the match against Spurs, Rooney and Evra together were able to totally stifle Aaron Lennon in the second half. Rooney also has the ability to cut in and shoot, or put in a cross from the left, or exchange positions with Giggs midway through the attack, or swap play with his brilliant cross field passing. Rooney is a dangerous player to have anywhere on the pitch and he is on a confident streak right now after his virtuoso display against Spurs. Ronaldo, against Gibbs, is a total mismatch. Frankly, I don't rate Gibbs and I think Ronaldo will have a field day. I do expect Nasri to track back often to crowd Ronaldo out, which is why I think Nasri will have 0 impact on the game. I do expect Gibbs to get caught out 1 on 1 against Ronaldo a few times during the match, and that is where United will look to score from.
Adebayor has not hit his heights from the previous seasons. Previously, his work ethic and determination endeared him to Arsenal fans. Now, he looks much lazier and less motivated to play for Arsenal, probably because of the contract saga. He can be a handful for defenders to handle, but I think Vidic will be competent in handling him, as Adebayor does not possess much trickery. What he relies on are strength, jumping ability and pace, all of which the United duo of Vidic and Ferdinand have too.
Berbatov is a different type of player from Adebayor. He is a link man between midfield and attack and likes dropping deep to set up play. He is the league's assist leader and has gotten 9 goals for United, so whoever doubts his quality can kiss my ass. He was instrumental against Spurs in the build up play with his first touch and close control and was involved in both the second and third goals. He is a player who can win a match through a moment of brilliance, and will be the perfect forward to unlock a stubborn Arsenal defence.
The United team are definitely more experienced than Arsenal. Without a doubt, experience plays a key factor in this match as knock-out competitions call for a level head and patience, and you only get that through experience. Against a full house crowd at Old Trafford, playing in the Semi Finals of the most prestigious European cup tournament, I fancy some of the Arsenal players to let their nerves get to them and make mistakes. United, after all, are playing on home soil and have felt it all before, and the home crowd will definitely spur them on. My prediction is that Arsenal will not be able to get much accurate passing going together and there will be long spells of United possession.
Strength of bench:
Arsenal have no game changers in their substitutes. Fabianski, Bendtner, Eboue and Diaby are the closest to being first teamers and they have not done enough to prove their quality. Whether they are game changers is an entirely different matter. Would you send on Vela if you knew you needed a goal? His quality is undoubted, but I have doubts about his composure in front of goal. Look at how Bojan missed a golden opportunity in the dying seconds of the match against Chelsea.
United have quality in abundance on their bench. Tevez can be brought on to change a match completely, as we witnessed in the game against Spurs over the weekend. Scholes can be brought on to unlock the meanest of defences, while Anderson and Park can be brought on to provide energy in the midfield area. Evans and Brown and Rafael are great defensive options to have. United definitely have more strength in depth and definitely have the advantage here.
I certainly believe that United are the better team overall. Especially when Arsenal are missing match winners like van Persie, who can be very lethal from set pieces. The United defence is huge and should be able to cope aerially against Arsenal from set pieces, and I think Ronaldo's presence in the air might be very effective against Arsenal's defenders. I think that the match will be a tight affair and very cagey in the first half, but we'll see a very open second half. Almunia will probably be the busier of both keepers and I think United will head to the Emirates with a 1-0 lead after a moment of brilliance from one of United's many matchwinners.