Manchester United and Arsenal’s players will be hoping to avoid the encumbrance of a Champions League play-off tie when they meet at Old Trafford in the Premier League on Sunday.
Two points above United in third place (and three points below second-place Manchester City), Arsenal are on course for automatic Champions League qualification, with the team finishing fourth obliged to enter the competition in the play-off round in late August.
But victory for United would take them above Arsenal and although Arsene Wenger’s side have a game in hand at home to struggling Sunderland on Wednesday, defeat is a complication they could do without.
Furthermore, with the north London club having lost 1-0 at home to a Swansea City side with nothing to play for on their last outing — ending a 10-game unbeaten run — Sunderland’s visit no longer seems the formality it perhaps once did.
United are effectively guaranteed to finish no lower than fourth, having opened up a six-point gap over fifth-place Liverpool with a significantly better goal difference.
Manager Louis van Gaal has therefore achieved his minimum objective for the campaign, but he also knows that snatching a podium place from Arsenal’s grasp would give his team a psychological edge going into next season.
“I think it [finishing fourth] was a big challenge,” said the Dutchman, whose side halted a run of three straight defeats with a hard-fought 2-1 win at Crystal Palace last weekend. “So, I think we did very good, but it is not good enough because at the end, we want to be champions.”
The two sides have claimed a 2-1 away victory apiece in their encounters to date this season, with United winning at the Emirates Stadium in the league in November and Arsenal prevailing in the FA Cup in March.
It is nine years since Arsenal last tasted success at Old Trafford in the league — a run of seven matches, which included an 8-2 humbling in August 2011 in which Wayne Rooney plundered a hat-trick.
But the FA Cup quarter-final success will give Arsenal confidence about returning to a stadium where they have struggled in recent years.
“It was a very important win there,” said Wenger, whose side will defend the FA Cup in the final against Aston Villa on May 30. “It was a very positive factor for the development of the team to go there and win. We can be inspired by that because a repeat of that kind of performance could give us some very important points.”
Mane fires fastest hat-trick in PL history
Southampton’s Sadio Mane blasted the quickest hat-trick in Premier League history as the Senegal winger netted three times in less than three minutes in a 6-1 win over Aston Villa on Saturday.
Mane took just two minutes and 56 seconds to demolish Villa at St Mary’s and surpass the previous record of four minutes and 33 seconds set by Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler against Arsenal in 1994.
The 23-year-old however, was shocked when told of his achievement.
“Really? It is the fastest Premier League hat-trick? The most important thing today is the victory,” said Mane. “We have a great team and last week [losing to Leicester City] was not easy but we have to work hard every game.”
Saints boss Ronald Koeman saluted Mane’s efforts, adding: “It was incredible from Sadio Mane. A player like him, to get that kind of space, he will punish you.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2015.