Pogba v Mkhitaryan and other key Arsenal versus Man United player battles

Matt Jones 10/03/2019
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Lingard and Martial celebrate the Frenchman's game-clinching third goal at the Emirates in the FA Cup in January.

Arsenal host Manchester United on Sunday evening in what is a pivotal clash at the Emirates in terms of the race for Champions League football next season.

The Red Devils are resurgent under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and a gap that was once 11 points when Jose Mourinho was sacked in December has been entirely eroded – the visitors are a point ahead coming into this clash.

An FA Cup exit at the hands of Sunday’s opponents was dished out just over a month ago and that will be fresh in the memory of both Gunners’ players and fans.

United come into the game on a high, with Solskjaer having delivered his most impressive result in midweek as a 2-0 deficit was overcome against Paris Saint-Germain and an unlikely Champions League berth obtained.

A day later, meanwhile, Arsenal suffered the ignominy of being beaten 3-1 against Rennes – 10th in Ligue 1 – in their Europa League last 16 opening stanza.

Thus, the pressure is all on the home side. Here we look at three key battles that could decide this one.

SOKRATIS PAPASTATHOPOULOS V VICTOR LINDELOF

Sokratis Papastathopoulos

In the heat of what is expected to be an intense battle, who is likely to be able to keep his cool more – a centre-back with eight yellow cards to his name and who was sent off in his last outing, or the man finally living up to his nickname as the ‘Iceman’?

As much as he has largely solidified Arsenal’s fragile defence since his summer arrival, Greek stalwart Sokratis also never appears to be far from causing a tragedy in the Gunners’ backline.

Unai Emery’s side had steadied the ship in recent weeks but following a promising start under the Spaniard, consistency has been woefully lacking since an earlier, excellent 22-game unbeaten run was halted in mid-December.

In the ensuing 19 games, nine victories have been coupled with eight defeats. Sokratis, meanwhile, has eight league yellow cards to his name and comes into this game having been sent off as the Gunners capitulated in Thursday’s 3-1 loss to Rennes.

In contrast to the heat of the spotlight on him and Arsenal, at the other end of the field, Lindelof has been coolness personified.

In the midst of what was already a quietly impressive and much improved season under Mourinho, the Swede has been sublime under Solskjaer – a run in which he’s even managed to net his maiden United goal.

It is at the heart of an often criticised backline though that he has really shone. In 17 games under his fellow Scandinavian United have conceded just 13 goals and only shipped more than two goals twice. Lindelof has played in 16 of those 17 games and is finally looking like a £30m player.

He leads United in clearances (101) and, when compared to his peers, only Jannik Vestergaard, Fabian Balbuena, Jan Bednarek and Denis Odoi have performed better having played fewer games.

Of centre-backs to play at least 20 games, only Wolves’ Conor Coady (18) and Leicester’s Harry Maguire (28) have lost fewer aerial duels than Lindelof’s 30.

Playing a position that is arguably the most combustible on the field, Lindelof, quite miraculously, only has one yellow card in 23 Premier League outings. The nickname is well-earned.

HENRIKH MKHITARYAN V PAUL POGBA

Paul Pogba

Even if there has been any slight comedown for United fans since their midweek heroics against PSG, they will have been pumped right back up with the news that Pogba returns to the fold at the Emirates following suspension.

Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera are also back in contention for the trip to north London but Solskjaer will perhaps be wary of throwing two key players straight into action, especially in such a potentially combustible game.

There’s also the small matter of Scott McTominay, Fred and Andreas Pereira having performed admirably in their absences, and all three will rightly feel their continued presence in the starting XI is warranted.

One of them, you feel, will have to drop out because Pogba certainly will come back into the fold. The Frenchman has epitomised United’s resurgence under Solskjaer as he has hoovered up both goals (nine in his last 14 games) and assists (he is third in the Premier League with nine).

Armenian architect Mkhitaryan is also in a fairly fruitful patch of form and will be looking for that to continue against his former team.

The 30-year-old has two goals and three assists in his last three league games – finding the net in wins over Bournemouth and Southampton and creating two goals in the 5-1 thrashing of the Cherries, with another one in the previous game against Saints.

He will feel a particular desire to perform here, even if his ire is perhaps not quite as sharp with his chief tormentor during a forgettable Old Trafford tenure, Mourinho, now jettisoned.

ALEXANDRE LACAZETTE V ROMELU LUKAKU

Lukaku

Despite their undoubted prowess in and outside the penalty box, Emery rarely pairs Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together. With the fact the Frenchman missed out on Thursday due to suspension, he is likely to get the nod against United, and why not.

He has five goals in his last nine games which is actually more than his fellow forward (three in nine) whose drop-off in form has seen him fall to third in the Premier League pecking order behind Sergio Aguero, the fit-again Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah on 16 goals.

Just four Premier League strikes behind the Gabon goalscorer and level on 12 with Lacazette is Lukaku, who is enduring a torrid season apparently.

Yet, in United’s time of need, the big Belgian has been an absolute behemoth – scoring braces in each of his last three games in all competitions.

Looking leaner and meaner, Lukaku will be raring to go and maintain his magnificent form. While McTominay, Pereira and Fred all have a case for inclusion at the Emirates, Lukaku is simply undroppable in this form and is certain to make life uncomfortable for Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny.

Even in the midst of his nine-game goalscoring drought which now seems a lifetime ago from mid-January to February 24, Gunners’ fans and players will recall a matchwinning performance from Lukaku in the FA Cup fourth round masterclass at the end of January – a game in which the much-maligned Lukaku set up goals for Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard.

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Astonishing Raheem Sterling stat emerges as Man City continue winning run

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Raheem Sterling is being linked with a move to Real Madrid.

Raheem Sterling scored the second Premier League hat-trick of his career on Saturday, and first in over three years. A long wait, no doubt, but an even more astonishing statistic emerged in the aftermath of Manchester City’s 3-1 win against Watford, a result that took them four points clear at the top of the table ahead of Liverpool, who play their game in hand on Sunday.

The young Englishman is now on a remarkable run of winning 34 straight games for City when he’s scored. Sterling last scored in a game which City failed to win in August 2017, when they drew 1-1 with Everton.

In fact, City have never lost a game when their £49million signing has found the back of the net, with his last goal in a loss coming for Liverpool over four years ago, against West Ham, in September 2014.

That incredible record means Sterling is now on a run of 59 straight games across all club competitions without tasting defeat when he’s scored. In the Premier League, that run currently stands at 41 games unbeaten – which means he’s closing in on Liverpool midfielder James Milner’s current active streak of 50.

Milner, Sterling’s former team-mate at City, has famously never lost a league game in which he’s scored, dating back to 2002 when he was playing for Leeds.

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Pep Guardiola ignores Juventus speculation as Man City go four points clear of Liverpool

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Pep Guardiola vowed to continue Manchester City‘s title push for years to come after moving four points clear of Liverpool with a Raheem Sterling-inspired win kicked off in controversial fashion against Watford.

The reigning champions laid down the gauntlet to Jurgen Klopp’s Reds on Saturday evening as their in-form forward netted a second-half hat-trick in just 13 minutes 12 seconds.

Sterling completed his treble with a smart finish, but the way the England international opened the scoring brought with it the Premier League’s latest offside controversy.

Appearing offside when played in by Sergio Aguero, referee Paul Tierney awarded the goal after lengthy consultation with assistant Eddie Smart after the ball rebounded in off him thanks to Daryl Janmaat’s clearance.

“Well, I guess the first question would be like this,” Guardiola said in the post-match press conference.

“My first comment is we won because we deserved to win by far. We were the better team on the pitch.

“Honestly, just in case it’s offside, I am sorry. I don’t want to do that but I don’t know. Really sorry if it is.

“Some referees say it is, sometimes another one says no. But there is a simple solution.

“It should be here this season but next season VAR (will be implemented) and that will not be a problem, and it will be more fair.

“There are other games it was the same – an offside goal and they score a goal, some games with the diving, with penalties – so the VAR is helping us.

“At the beginning of the season, Manchester City voted to install the VAR from this season and some other clubs didn’t accept that.

“So, hopefully next season like in Europe it can install the VAR and this kind of situation will be fair.

“So, I am so sorry, apologise, to Javi (Gracia) and the club Watford if the first goal is offside, but we made an incredible game and we played good in the first half.”

Guardiola was frustrated by the questions about officiating and complicated rule system, just as he was irked by a report on the eve of the game that he had verbally agreed to join Juventus on a four-year deal.

“I have two more years here and I am (not) going to move,” he said. “Impossible. Except if they sack me and after I go home.

“But if Manchester City want me, I will stay two more years by far – and hopefully another one.

“I am not going to Juventus in the next two seasons.”

Such words will be music to ears of City fans, but there is little to put a smile on the face of Watford supporters after a galling afternoon in which substitute Gerard Deulofeu’s goal was scant consolation.

“In the first half we had a very good performance – better defensively because we were well organised,” manager Gracia said.

“We didn’t concede many chances and I think it was a good first half.

“In the second, the game changed. After conceding the first goal, there were some moments where we weren’t so focused and then conceded two goals, then after it was impossible to get the opportunity to get any points.

“That decision, I think everybody could see what happened. This season I didn’t criticise the referees, I am not going to do (that) today.

“If the officials want to explain what happened, they can do it.

“In my opinion it’s clear, but we try to compete until the end and it’s all I can say.”

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