Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says the trip to play Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday is the start of a sequence of games which will determine his side’s fate in the Premier League title race.
Despite suffering frustration in an FA Cup fifth-round draw against Hull City and disappointment in losing to Barcelona in the Champions League round-of-16 first leg, the dramatic 2-1 home win over league leaders Leicester City on February 14 has the Gunners within two points of the summit in third place.
Wenger acknowledged the league now takes priority and Arsenal’s upcoming away games – against United, Tottenham, Everton and West Ham – could prove decisive as they seek a first title since 2004.
Arsenal have won none and lost six of their last eight league visits to Old Trafford, but came out on top at the venue in the FA Cup last season and will go into this match as narrow favourites.
“We are in a strong position in the league, that’s for sure, but there is still a long way to go,” said Wenger.
“Winning at Old Trafford in 1998 put us on a good run, but the second time [in 2002] we knew that if we won there we would become champions. It was a decisive game, which is the case again on Sunday.
“It is the key period. We work the whole season for this period and that’s where you are really tested but it’s where you have an opportunity to show your quality as well.
“You can show quality, nerves and desire as well. We need to focus on the Premier League where we have a big part to play. Everybody drops points and it is unpredictable. We have rebuilt a good run in the Premier League and we need to continue that.
“Let’s not set any limit on the number of points we can get. We have put ourselves in a strong position again. We want to take advantage of that and continue our good run in the Premier League.”
Injury-hit hosts United are fifth in the table, six points adrift of Manchester City in the final Champions League qualification position, having earned fewer points (41) after 26 games than in any other Premier League campaign.
But Thursday’s 5-1 second-leg win over Midtjylland in the Europa League round of 32 boosted the standing of under-fire manager Louis van Gaal, who wants to see Memphis Depay build on a stunning display against the Danish champions.
“I have seen a fantastic performance from Memphis, everyone has seen that – I think he was also spectacular,” said Van Gaal. “I hope he will also show that against Arsenal; it’s another level, but I am very confident he’ll do it.
“I’m very happy for him. He can play fantastic so maybe it’s a turning point. You never know. I hope it is, with all my heart. I hope he shall show it also against Arsenal.”
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is out for the Gunners with a knee injury suffered against Barca, but Gabriel (hamstring) is in contention and will undergo a late fitness test.
United have 14 players struggling with injuries, but will assess key trio David de Gea (knee), Anthony Martial (hamstring) and Chris Smalling (shoulder) ahead of kick-off.
Key Opta stats:
– Arsenal’s win against Manchester United at Emirates Stadium earlier this season ended a run of eight Premier League matches without a victory against the Red Devils for Arsene Wenger’s men (W0 D3 L5).
– Arsenal have dropped seven points from winning positions away from home, the joint-most in the Premier League along with United.
– Arsenal have kept five clean sheets in their last eight Premier League matches.
– Only three players (Thierry Henry, 20 in 2002-03, Frank Lampard, 18 in 2004-05 and Cesc Fabregas, 18 in 2014-15) have assisted more goals in a single Premier League season than Mesut Ozil (17) in 2015-16.
– United (33) have scored fewer goals after 26 league games than in any season since 1989-90 (30).
– United have scored 995 goals at Old Trafford in the Premier League.