LONDON, February 26 – Arsenal will look to put their Champions League woes to one side when they continue their quest for a first Premier League title in more than a decade away to a revived Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday.
The Gunners’ 2-0 last-16 first-leg defeat by reigning champions Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday all but ended their dreams of winning a maiden Champions League title for yet another season.
But Arsene Wenger’s men, currently two points behind shock leaders Leicester and level with north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, could yet end the week at the summit of English football if they beat United and other results go their way.
And Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker, a World Cup-winner with Germany, said there was no question of heads dropping among his team-mates, who are aiming to give the Gunners a first English championship since 2004.
“We have never done that this season, particularly when we have lost a game we have tried to bounce back quickly,” the central defender said.
“I think we have a great chance on Sunday to do that again and to show we are still in a strong position and still competing for the title.”
Arsenal now face a United side looking to win three matches in different competitions in a week after victories over Shrewsbury and FC Midtjylland in the FA Cup and Europa League eased some of the mounting pressure on manager Louis van Gaal.
Speculation over the Dutchman’s future at Old Trafford is unlikely to end any time soon but this week’s wins do at least mean United, fifth in the Premier League and 12 points behind Leicester, still have a chance of ending the season with some silverware.
What made Thursday’s 5-1 defeat of Midtjylland, which secured a 6-3 aggregate last-32 success, all the sweeter for United supporters was that 18-year-old striker Marcus Rashford, a product of the club’s academy, scored twice on a senior debut that only came about after Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up.
Van Gaal has been accused of disrespecting United tradition in both favouring an overly-cautious style of play and ignoring players produced by the club’s once-famed youth system.
But Thursday’s match, which former United manager Alex Ferguson witnessed from the stands, would have been more to the liking of the club’s supporters.
– ‘Fight for the maximum’ –
Leicester, who spent most of last season battling to avoid relegation from the Premier League, have defied all predictions to be in with a shot of being crowned champions of England for the first time.
Their bid to turn the stuff of schoolboy fiction into reality continues at home to struggling Norwich on Saturday.
Arsenal’s 2-1 win at the Emirates was only Leicester’s third defeat in the league this season and manager Claudio Ranieri believes the Midlands club’s next five matches will be vital to their title fortunes.
“I look always forward, to the top, I never see behind. Every time we fight for the maximum, every match (we want) three points,” said Ranieri.
“The next five are the most important, the key, today until the new (international) break. After March 19th we don’t play more, there is another break. For this reason I said the five matches are a key point.”
Tottenham, who last won the English title in 1961, face Swansea at White Hart Lane on Sunday when Manchester City, six points off top spot, play Liverpool in the League Cup final.
Bottom-of-the-table Aston Villa, all but destined for relegation, are away to Stoke on Saturday when fellow drop candidates Sunderland travel to West Ham.
Meanwhile two Dutch managers will be in opposition when faltering champions Chelsea, under the caretaker charge of Guus Hiddink, play Ronald Koeman’s Southampton.
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Leicester v Norwich, Southampton v Chelsea, Stoke v Aston Villa, Watford v Bournemouth, West Brom v Crystal Palace (1730 GMT), West Ham v Sunderland (1245 GMT)
Manchester United v Arsenal (1405 GMT), Tottenham v Swansea (1405 GMT)