Manchester United against Arsenal is the clash of champions and league leaders, of serial winners and consistent top-four finishers, of a club with an attacking ethos versus a team with a passing philosophy. It is also the meeting of the most important player in last season’s title race and the most significant in this.
Last season, Robin van Persie provided Arsenal with constant reminders of what they had lost. There was the injury-time decider against Manchester City, the winner at Anfield, a goal in the victory at Stamford Bridge and a third-minute strike when Arsenal visited Old Trafford. He was both the man for the big occasion and for every occasion.
As Van Persie’s replacement in the Arsenal attack, Olivier Giroud was burdened with comparisons. They have decreased as the Frenchman has proved himself a different, but worthy successor. Yet he has inherited another mantle from Van Persie. The destination of the title could depend upon him.
That is part indication of his influence, part indictment of others. If few other players at the elite clubs are as pivotal, it is because it is rare that the gulf between them and their deputies is as great. Perhaps only Manchester City’s crucial captain Vincent Kompany compares.
But the alternatives to Giroud consist of the injured pair of Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, both with a scoring pedigree but both men Arsene Wenger has preferred to deploy on the flanks.
Among specialist strikers there is the untried, and also injured, Yaya Sanogo, the forgotten man Park Chu-young and his current stand-in Nicklas Bendtner.
The Dane with the oversized ego and overgrown hair has made one start for the club in almost 1,000 days, and he was booed off then.
So Giroud has been catapulted to prominence by his own excellence and the failings of others. Perhaps Arsene Wenger belongs in that category, given his inability to sign a striker in the summer.
One of his targets, Luis Suarez, was in the opposing side last week. Another, Wayne Rooney, will line up against Arsenal on Sunday. A third, Gonzalo Higuain, should be in the Napoli team they will meet on December 11. At every step, Arsenal are confronted with the question of what might have been.
And yet had any become Arsenal’s showcase signing rather than Mesut Ozil, the chances are Giroud would have been confined to the bench. Instead, he has been the fulcrum of the attack, allowing the several creators to dart around him. He is the giant in a footballing version of Gulliver’s Travels, yet one whose understanding of the game and whose deft touch enable him to join in their passing moves.
“He is highly improved in a technical way,” Wenger said this week. “He enjoys combining much more.”
That Giroud has five assists to complement his seven goals is a sign he has and that he is capable of supplying Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Co. He set up the Welshman’s Wednesday winner in Dortmund.
It is not merely the goal tally that is relevant. Giroud struck 17 times last season, but he was accused of being a flat-track bully; indeed none of his goals came outside London. He arrives in Manchester having broadened his range and troubled the top teams.
He has scored against Tottenham Hotspur, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund. He is becoming a pedigree player.
“He is an exceptional striker,” Wenger said. “He fights for the team, he has great qualities and charisma. I am convinced there is a lot more to come from Olivier.”
Arsenal must hope so, partly because he will need to be fit to deliver and they can ill-afford his absence. As Giroud said last week: “Touch wood, I will not get injured.”
And yet the top dog is still an underdog. Of the strikers on show on Sunday, Rooney and Van Persie boast the bigger reputations. They have earned the individual accolades. However, while it is undeniable both are vital to United, Giroud has become still more central to Arsenal’s plans.
Adnan Januzaj v Bacary Sagna
Januzaj, the United youngster, has burst on to the scene but his defensive fraility could be exploited by Arsenal’s right-back.
United have lost only one of their last 12 games in all competitions against Arsenal.
Man United (4-4-2) De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Fellaini, Valencia, Januzaj; Rooney, Van Persie. Arsenal (4-5-1) Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Ramsey, Rosicky, Cazorla, Ozil; Giroud
Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United
Roberto Soldado has said he and his Tottenham teammates will be wary of Newcastle on Sunday. Newcastle defeated Chelsea 2-0 last week, and the Tottenham striker said: “We watched their game against Chelsea ... I think Newcastle will be quite confident and it won’t be an easy match for us.”
Sunderland v Manchester City
The form of Sergio Aguero has earned praise from Manuel Pellegrini, the Manchester City manager. Aguero has scored nine goals in his past seven games, and ahead of Sunday’s trip to Sunderland, Pellegrini said: “Sergio has had an incredible last month ... he is in a great moment.”
Swansea City v Stoke City
Mark Hughes is confident that the good times are ahead for Stoke this season. Hughes’s side are fourth bottom before Sunday’s match at Swansea, with only nine points, and he said: “We obviously have to align performances with results, and I’m convinced that will happen.”