Could striker Walcott go up front for Arsenal at Man Utd?

Nov 2, 2012
Jonathan Harwood

Premier League preview: All eyes on Robin van Persie, but is it time to unleash Walcott?

THE CLOCKS have changed and the floodlights will be on by 4.45pm this weekend, which means that the season proper has begun. And what better way to usher in the long winter nights than with one of the classic English Premier League fixtures as Arsenal travel to Old Trafford to face their old rivals Manchester United.

The Saturday lunchtime clash between the Red Devils and the Gunners could be billed as the biggest game of the season so far, but even if you disagree with that assessment then there is still no doubt that the sight of Robin Van Persie playing against Arsenal for the first time will be one of the highlights, or lowlights, of the campaign.

The striker's move from south to north this summer has reignited the historic rivalry between the two clubs, and emotions are sure to be running high at Old Trafford. Arsene Wenger has begged his supporters to show their former captain and idol some respect, but there is about as much chance of RVP getting a polite reception from the travelling Gooners as there is of the Old Trafford faithful welcoming Wenger to the dugout with a nice round of applause.

The truly epic battles between these two clubs are now a thing of the past, partly because the likes of Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane are no longer around and partly because the two teams are no longer in direct competition. The emergence of other challengers like Manchester City and Chelsea has even served to thaw relations between the managers. Ferguson and Wenger are, if not friends, then no longer the mortal enemies they once were.

What galls the Gunners most is that they have not finished above United since 2005, and in the seven seasons since then United have won 101 more points than Arsenal, and they are six points clear of the Gunners this season.

Arsenal's chances are not boosted by their form at Old Trafford. The Gunners have not beaten United in Manchester since 2006 and in the six years since that victory have lost seven of their eight games at the Theatre of Dreams. And who can forget the humiliation heaped upon Arsene Wenger and his young Arsenal side last season, when they were trounced 8-2.

So how will they fare against United featuring Van Persie? First-choice goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is still out injured so Vito Mannone will continue in goal, while striker Gervinho will also miss out.

Misfiring front man Olivier Giroud scored against Reading on Tuesday night, but he was outshone by Theo Walcott. So, could this be the moment that Wenger, who is not afraid to make bold decisions, decides to hand the enigmatic winger the role of centre forward? With Jack Wilshere back in midfield the manager may decide to go for broke. However, his plans may rest on the fitness of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. If he has recovered from a hip problem a front three of Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain would certainly get the fans talking.

Alex Ferguson's main quandary appears to be whether to play Javier Hernandez, who has been in sparkling form in recent weeks, up front with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, or opt for Danny Welbeck or Antonio Valencia.

Both sides conceded five goals in the Capital One Cup in midweek, but a goalfest to rival last season seems unlikely. Arsenal boast the meanest defence in the Premier League this season, so they will be confident of avoiding the kind of drubbing they experienced last time. However, if the game ends goalless it will be a minor miracle.

The form books point to a comfortable United win, but Arsenal could just sneak a point provided they can find the net.

League leaders Chelsea travel to Swansea on Saturday afternoon knowing that victory will keep them top of the table. Both teams enjoyed excellent wins in the Capital One Cup in midweek and Swansea, in particular, will want to carry on where they left off. But it will be a tough assignment against Chelsea who came from behind three times to beat Manchester United on Wednesday night.

The champions, Manchester City, are in action in Saturday's evening match against West Ham. Sam Allardyce will relish the chance to get one over on City's playboys and Andy Carroll is sure to give Roberto Mancini's defence a game to remember. City may be the only team in the Premier League that has yet to lose a game, but Mancini is under pressure thanks to a series of unconvincing performances and some dire results in Europe. So despite their record the pressure is on City and the Hammers will try to take advantage.

Talking of under pressure managers, the big game on Sunday sees Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool welcome Newcastle to Anfield. The new Reds boss was forced to watch as Swansea became the fourth team to beat Liverpool at home this season on Wendesday and another defeat would be a disaster.

Newcastle could be the team to inflict such an indignity on the once-mighty Reds. With Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse in the team they have no shortage of firepower up front and at the back Magpies manager Alan Pardew has likened Fabricio Coloccini to Bobby Moore.

By contrast Liverpool have been relying almost entirely on Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard for inspiration this season. Youngsters like Raheem Sterling have given the Kop a glimpse of the future, but they would rather have three points in their pockets on Sunday than high hopes for 2018.

Rodgers still has the backing of Liverpool's owners and the fans, but another defeat could leave the Reds looking at a long hard winter and the unthinkable prospect of a fight against relegation.

In Saturday's other games Fulham play Everton, Norwich face Stoke, Aston Villa visit Sunderland, Tottenham play Wigan. On Sunday QPR play Reading and Monday's game sees West Brom play Southampton.

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