x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

On any given Sunday, anything can happen

In August the two north London teams were humbled by their Manchester rivals, today they can get revenge, Richard Jolly writes

Manchester United's Ashley Young, left, celebrates with teammates, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney, right, after scoring their eighth goal as they beat Arsenal 8-2 in August.
Manchester United's Ashley Young, left, celebrates with teammates, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney, right, after scoring their eighth goal as they beat Arsenal 8-2 in August.

It rarely fails to irk the traditionalists that 1992 is seen as English football's Year Zero. The formation of the Premier League brought the same game a different name but rebranding can be contagious. One of the innovations was Super Sunday, as it is called, borrowed shamelessly from American football. Often it is a description that does not stand up to any kind of analysis.

Yet August 28 was a superb Sunday, perhaps the most surreal in the Premier League's history. Manchester City provided the appetiser, thrashing Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 at White Hart Lane, Manchester United the main course with an 8-2 demolition of Arsenal.

Almost five months later, the twin halves of north London have their chance for revenge as, with wonderful symmetry, the reverse fixtures comprise the Sunday drama again.

August brought almost unrivalled entertainment, but January offers greater meaning. It is entirely plausible that any one of three sides will emerge as the title favourites, that Arsenal will end today rejuvenated or written off in their challenge for fourth place. It is a day that might be decisive.

It is one that may answer questions, but first poses them. Over the past two decades, the meetings of Arsenal and United have been England's equivalent of el clasico, bad-tempered, high-quality clashes of the superpowers. It is a fixture that retains its status as a classic, yet it may have only second billing today.

City against Tottenham is the duel between league leaders and the team a mischief-making Sir Alex Ferguson says play the best football in the country. It pits the season's dominant force against the side with the best record since their last encounter.

Because, when City departed White Hart Lane triumphant in summer, Tottenham propped up the Premier League, a club seemingly in disarray. Fast forward to the current day and Spurs have executed a U-turn of stunning brilliance, propelling them to new heights.

The subsequent 19 games have contained a solitary defeat and yielded 46 points. It is title-winning form, but Tottenham's unexpected ascent means they have most to prove. Can they perform under pressure in the way United have for years and City for much of this season?

Tottenham were last champions in 1961, City in 1968, yet the context is different. Spurs are examined on a macro level, City on a micro scale.

Their task is to prove that, after successive defeats to United and Liverpool, that the Etihad Stadium remains the most intimidating ground to visit; that they can overcome absences, injuries and ill-fortune.

There is a symbolism in the scheduling, new forces following old. United have added to the storied nature of their side by recalling Paul Scholes from retirement.

However, it was one thing for the midfielder to stroll around against Bolton Wanderers last week, another altogether for a 37 year old to run the game against a side of Arsenal's accomplishment.

United make a virtue of prospering with patched-up sides, but may be depending on a second-string goalkeeper, as Anders Lindegaard was until recently, and a reserve-team coach, as Scholes started the season, for their January reinforcements. It is an extraordinary turn of events, yet their winning habit could give them a share of the lead in the division, if only for a couple of hours.

Their excellent record means that, as ever, the burden of proof is on Arsenal. They must show the psychological scars sustained at Old Trafford have healed.

It hardly helps that Arsenal approach the rematch in adversity again, with no fit full-backs, with Mikel Arteta out and both Thomas Vermaelen and Thierry Henry doubts. But if, after conceding eight goals in a game for the first time in 115 years when they last met United, this can only represent an improvement, their ultimate aim may require vengeance.

Like Tottenham, their task is to go from vanquished to victors. In the quest for supremacy, another 16 goals cannot be guaranteed, but it is certainly a seismic Sunday.