So it’s that time of the year, and Arsene Wenger’s boys are in town. The once feared rivalry has lately ceased to exist. The North-South Derby, if you call it so, has of late failed to grab eyes. However, with the two teams fighting for pole position and with Chelsea’s title challenge faltering, this game could provide the much needed shot in the arm to the simmering dual. Manchester United’s left back Patrice Evra has already started the mind games, and his taunt surely won’t go unanswered by the North London club.
Days before the titanic clash, we, at TheHardTackle, have indulged in a friendly banter with our resident Arsenal author Sounak Mukherjee. Here are some riveting questions and even more fascinating replies.
Welcome to the Red Devils’ lair, Sounak! I won’t waste any time – so here’s the first question.
Question: How would you assess the performance of Arsenal so far this season?
Sounak – It has been quite a strange season with the obvious defensive frailties visible to the entire Premiership community. Yet, the attacking forte and the amazing away form of Arsenal have somehow rescued them from dodgy situations. As far as away fixtures go, there has been a significant change in attitude where the team has shown unbelievable fighting spirit, especially the matches against Wolves and Everton. Finally, the brilliant form of Nasri has helped our cause too. To summarize, I am quite satisfied with our season if we don’t talk about ‘defensive mistakes’.
Question: The rivalry has thrown up some amazing contests in the past, some unforgettable clashes “literally”. Which is your defining moment in the United-Arsenal saga? I would imagine Sylvan Wiltord’s winner at OT comes close.
Sounak – THAT goal is imprinted in my mind like no other incident from my childhood. Silvestre, Ohh, I have always hated him, giving the ball to Parlour, who feeds it to Wiltord, who in turn gives it to Freddie. The Swede dribbles past one defender and shoots, Barthez blocks but of course Wiltord turns in the rebound, I was ecstatic as he scored. Yeah, that is most certainly the defining moment of Arsenal’s rivalry with United. Then there are others like the fights between Keane and Vieira, RVN hitting the crossbar in that penalty and our entire contingent going and pushing him, Thierry scoring a blinder with Carroll at goal, another one with Barthez at goal and many more.
Question: The Keano-Viera era is now in the past, and the two managers who once couldn’t see eye to eye are relatively cordial these days. As a fan, do you miss the intensity of those matches in the late 90’s and up to ’05.
Sounak – I have a feeling that with the emergence of Chelsea and their big money, both Arsenal and United have targeted The Blues as the ‘team to beat’ to win the title. In between all that, they have forgotten their severe rivalry. More so, United and Arsenal could never replace characters like Keane and Vieira, who hated each other so much that they could kill each other on a football pitch. They spread the venom among their team-mates and things like ‘fair-play’ and ‘brotherhood’ were simply thrown out of the window. Of course I miss that kind of rivalry, but I am sure both the teams know how big a match this one would be!
Question: There has been a lot of talk of United’s decline this season and how the once feared devil isn’t the same anymore. Do you concur with this POV?
Sounak – I don’t think so. United are still a force to reckon with! They are still undefeated in the league and are in top form of late, having decimated a Blackburn side at home a few days back. They lack a good holding midfielder along with a guy who can consistently perform as a playmaker like Scholes.
Question: There has been a lot said and written about the apparent lack of leadership in the Arsenal dressing room and how the departure of Viera has left a void that is yet to be filled. So who really wears the pants in the Arsenal dressing room?
Sounak – There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that Cesc is our leader and his team-mates look up to him. He is an exceptional talent who leads from the front, though he is certainly not as vociferous as Patrick was. Along with Cesc, we have three more captains of their respective countries, Arshavin, Rosicky and Vermaelen, who give their valuable inputs too. Most recently, Samir has worn the captain’s arm-band and has been seen shouting instructions to his team-mates even when Van Persie was taking a penalty kick against Partizan.
Question: Lastly how do you envisage the upcoming “Battle of Old Trafford”; possibly pick out the key duals where it could all be won and lost.
Sounak – It is very important for Squillaci and Koscielny to maintain their composure and not get overawed by the occasion or the Rooney-Berbatov duo. They have never been to Old Trafford before, and so they need to keep their nerves intact. Clichy needs to make sure that he doesn’t commit to Nani and stays with his man all the time like inseparable buddies. The attacking trio of Nasri, Arshavin and Chamakh should click to earn us any points at Trafford. The sight of Cesc walking down the pitch to start for us can be a huge motivation factor. I have a feeling we can win this game.May the best team win!
Fair enough. It’s my time on the hot seat; go easy on me, mate!
Question: Within a space of 6 days you play Arsenal followed by Chelsea, will this two fixtures be title-deciding ones?
Nipun– Undoubtedly this is a very crucial week for the club; the famous cliché of a 6 pointer comes into play. The most heartening aspect for a United fan is the return of the swagger in our attacking play, coinciding with the return of Rooney – it surely isn’t just a coincidence. However I feel the title race wouldn’t be decided just yet, even if we go on to win the next two games. Realistically a return of four points from the next two games will do nicely.
Question:Do you think Nani has finally come off age? Or, is there something more he can give to the team?
Nipun-The enigmatic Nani is here for the long haul. The Portuguese winger had turned the corner last January and possibly his first half performance against the gunners at the Emirates was the turning point. Nani’s game is based on moments of sheer brilliance that have often turned defeats into victory. He is leading the assists chart in the league and has already scored more goals than he did in the whole of the last campaign. Just wish he could cut out his infuriating petulance and the love for hugging the turf at minimal contact. At the moment, he remains a flawed genius, and I would rather have him in our team than against us.
Question: Has the Rooney situation completed pacified? Can Berbatov-Rooney finally form a lethal combo like Berbatov-Robbie Keane? Rooney and Berbatov were in sublime touch against Blackburn.
Nipun– A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the Rooney saga was making headlines in and round the U.K. The healing process has started, and it’s entirely up to Rooney to win back hearts by performing like we all know he can. For now, let’s just say he is on the right track.
Coming to the second part of your question I somehow don’t think the Berba-Roo combination is one for the future. Sir Alex will invariably settle for a 4-5-1 formation in the top of the league battles as well as in the knockout stages of Europe. Also, there is a young Mexican waiting in the wings to make his presence felt.
Question: Why do you think United-Arsenal fixtures aren’t ‘fiercely competitive’ any more like the days of ‘PizzaGate fixtures’? Lack of competition from Arsenal or lack of characters like Keane/Vieira?
Nipun– Ohh how badly I miss those games! The games at Highbury against Le’Arse were probably the defining ones growing up in the 90’s. With the managers never short of a word against each other and with the opposing captains at loggerheads, this fixture was as fierce as any in Europe in those days. However Arsenal had a bit of a blip in recent times and also the relationship between Sir Alex and Arsene wenger is now relatively cordial. But I do feel this year could be something special. Anyway, the football in this fixture never disappoints and that’s a given.
Wenger and United fans- will we hear ‘that’ chant?
Question: Have United found the replacements for Scholes, Giggs and Neville? Can you name three players who can safely take United forward in the next decade or so?
Nipun– Nope. These guys are legends and will never be replaced completely; they happen once in a lifetime in a club’s history, and their absence will be felt long after they hang their boots. However, United as a club will go on and the next generation will have a herculean task filling in those gigantic boots.
Rafael is nailed on as the Gary Neville replacement at the Right Back position and has already somewhat filled in the void beautifully.
Giggs is a special case, there aren’t many who will come near the Welsh wizard at his peak. He is the epitome of professionalism and longevity. Looking at our squad currently Park and Obertan occupy the left wing in Giggs absence. However the position is still very much up for grabs and I won’t be surprised if we look at your beloved north London neighbors for a solution come this summer.
Midfield has been our biggest concern in recent times, with Carrick’s form dwindling and Fletcher not near his best. I have had high hopes on Anderson ever since his debut season. His chance is here now and if the last three games are an indicator I hope he does a ‘Nani’ and solve our midfield headache.
Question: The Premiership Form guide says United on top with 14 points in 6 fixtures. Is this possibly the best time for you to play Arsenal and the off-color Chelsea team?
Nipun– Arsenal aren’t doing bad either, are they? They have the best away form in the league and have possibly the most inform player in the league in Samir Nasri. So I wouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch. Arsenal has match winners all over the pitch in the form of Arshavin, RVP, Fabregas and Nasri himself. However at Old Trafford I always feel comfortable against anybody in the world, so bring them on!
Chelsea are down, but we haven’t won at the Bridge in ages , after the dubious defeat at their home last year. Just wish we can finally break the jinx.
Thanks for your time Sounak, have a good game!