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A guard of honour for a prolific traitor

ESPN staff
April 26, 2013
Robin van Persie will return to the Emirates Stadium a Premier League champion © PA Photos
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The start of an extended victory lap for Manchester United serves as the continuation of a fraught sprint to the finish for Arsenal on Sunday, with the home side fixated on bigger tasks than simply providing a warm welcome for the newly-crowned champions.

A pre-match guard of honour is about the only concession to ceremony the Gunners will make - with victory over United a huge, huge step towards another season of Champions League action.

As with all high-stakes matches, however, the downside is as stark as the upside is enticing - defeat could leave the Gunners fifth, having played a game more than their two rivals, by the full-time whistle. With just three games left for the Gunners, that is a position they will be desperate to avoid.

'We can only focus on our own performance," Arsene Wenger said on Friday. "We are on a good run.

"I'm confident we will make top four. But we need total focus and willingness to do that. We have no room to drop points."

Wenger's task is complicated by the absence of Olivier Giroud, who will begin a three-match suspension after what appeared to many to be a harsh dismissal against Fulham. While the French striker has been far from prolific this season, he at least provided the Gunners with a natural centre forward, something they now appear to be without.

Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott both covet the role, but Wenger may rightfully have concerns about how they will fare in the crucial aspect of hold-up play against the physicality of Vidic and Ferdinand.

Lukas Podolski could well be asked to replace Olivier Giroud in attack © Getty Images
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United do not need to concern themselves with such issues - for them, the hard work is done and the title is already secured. The game will still be of significance to a certain Robin van Persie, however, the Dutchman perhaps entitled to feel a sense of vindication when he walks out on the Emirates turf once again.

A pivotal figure in the title race, the striker will be lauded - or, more probably, vilified - by the fans who used to adore him on Sunday. He, however, will have a Premier League winner's medal to shield him from any such abuse.

For some the irony may prove too much - a striker-less Arsenal, trying to secure at least fourth in the table, needing to overcome a team inspired by a near-perfect No. 9 who left them to (successfully) win trophies.

'You don't focus on what we've lost," Wenger said. "We just want to get round it. We always miss a big player.

"It took us a while to get round it, but we've scored a similar number of goals this season."

Form

For all the criticism directed at Arsenal, you cannot fault their recent record. At this crucial juncture in the campaign the Gunners sit top of the form table, having picked up 16 points from their last six games - virtually all of them played under real pressure.

The only slip came in a fraught 0-0 draw with Everton, but wins over Swansea, Reading, West Brom, Norwich and Fulham have all helped the side edge up to third going into this weekend.

Over the same period United have acquired 13 points, drawing with West Ham shortly after a painful - but ultimately meaningless - derby defeat at home to Manchester United. With four games remaining, Sir Alex Ferguson is targeting a maximum 12 points to set a new Premier League record points total (currently held by Chelsea, with 95).

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Arsenal have no new injury concerns following the Fulham victory, although Giroud is suspended after his red card. Goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski is also still some way from a first-team return, meaning Wojciech Szczesny will continue between the posts.

After playing through slight injuries against Aston Villa, Ferguson is hoping to rest Jonny Evans and Michael Carrick. The Scot is set to return Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand to the heart of defence, while Phil Jones could slot into midfield.

The boss is keen to involve more fringe players over the close to the campaign, too - including Tom Cleverley, Nani, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, raising the prospect that Van Persie could be left on the bench for the Sunday contest.

Fergie said: "A lot of the younger players have been on the fringes for the last few weeks, and I desperately want them to feel their contribution has been big."

One to watch

Robin van Persie. Can it be anyone else? The Dutchman returns to the ground where he was a hero as the villain, but even the most ardent of Arsenal fans may concede that his decision has paid off handsomely.

Twenty-four goals (top of the league scoring charts, and unlikely to be surpassed after Luis Suarez's ban) is an impressive return, but more significantly those goals have often come at decisive times for United. Van Persie may not even start Sunday's game but, regardless of his whereabouts, he will be the centre of almost all the discussion going on in the terraces.

Key battle

Buoyed - or perhaps unduly burdened - by comments from Ferguson in the aftermath of the title-clinching win over Villa that he could become United's greatest ever player, Phil Jones is likely to be employed in a holding midfield role against Arsenal.

It is a position he occupied to impressive effect against Real Madrid in the Champions League, but Mikel Arteta has been similarly dependable for the Gunners all season. If he can keep hold of the ball and help dominate that important midfield area, Arsenal may have a platform to go on and win the match.

Prediction and bet

Much like Newcastle's match with Liverpool, it is clear that one side needs the victory in this one far more than the other. Arsenal can barely afford to lose, but it is not like United - even with nothing to play for - will prove a pushover.

We expect the Gunners to come out strong, but believe United will rally back in the closing stages and deny their hosts a victory. Arsenal to be leading at half-time, but held to a draw by the final whistle is an intriguing value bet at 12/1 with bet365.

Or just fancy Robin van Persie to return with a goal? The Dutchman is 6/4 to be on the scoresheet.

Final score: 1-1

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