Emirates Stadium, England

Attendance: 60112

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  • Theo Walcott 2'

1 - 1


Manchester United

  • Robin Van Persie 44' PEN

Return of the fallen prodigal

John Brewin
Robin van Persie against Arsenal at Old Trafford

Robin Van Persie has been struggling to sleep all week. The excitement of securing his first Premier League title with a dazzling hat-trick has just about abated. And now he must face the white-hot cauldron of noise that is the Emirates Stadium. And he will be the man in focus, the target for the legendary venom of Arsenal's home support. The little boy inside him who told him Manchester United was the place to be is probably cowering underneath the bedclothes.

Actually, running the Gunners gauntlet might not actually be much of a concern at all for Van Persie. Apart from mocking Arsenal's ground as the apotheosis of a modern stadium filled to the rafters with ciabatta-munching, latte-guzzling, wax-jacket-wearing bourgeoise dwellers in houses with aga cookers, there is the prospect that Van Persie might not even play. The title is won, and Sir Alex Ferguson is planning for the next challenge, and that lies in next season. Van Persie has proved what he offers, and the Golden Boot is his too, after Luis Suarez's inappropriate mastication.

Ferguson has pledged that his United team will honourably give of their best since they have a significant part to play in who represents England in the Champions League next season. They still have Chelsea to play too. He has made such pledges before, and delivered mixed results. On the final day of the 2006-07 season, the champions lost to West Ham United to send Sheffield United down. Two years later, a reserve line-up from a squad already title winners and heading to a Champions League final went to Hull City and won, handing Newcastle United the chance to save themselves. Professionalism preserved but the Magpies lost at Aston Villa and Phil Brown hit the microphone for an impromptu version of Sloop John B.

The last time United were so clear at the top was the 2000-01 season. They still won by ten points despite winning just one of their last five matches. The last three were lost, including a defeat to Derby County that closed off Manchester City's possible route to safety. This season, of course, there is a record total of 96 points to aim for. The satisfaction of winning their 13th Premier League, their 20th championship overall is probably enough for him. Numbers do not equal glory. The next trophy is always the most important one.

Expect then, if not in this game, to see experimentation from Ferguson. Phil Jones and Jonny Evans pointed to the future against Villa on Monday. Danny Welbeck and Chicharito Hernandez might be given a similar chance in North London. Perhaps Wayne Rooney, this new box-to-box midfielder might get another run-out too.

This is a game without pressure, and one to enjoy for United but of course, not so for Arsenal though their fate is in their own hands. Should Arsenal win all their matches, they can reach 75 points and would be guaranteed Champions League football. Spurs can still reach 76 if they do the same. Chelsea can actually reach 77 after Luis Suarez took a bite out of their hopes in the 97th minute last week. But both cannot finish above Arsenal if the Gunners win all of their remaining fixtures.

The fly in that mathematical ointment is that Chelsea host Spurs on May 8. That places the race for the top four in all three's hands, and aside from the relegation battle to avoid one remaining place, it will be the overriding narrative of the remainder of the 2012-13 Premier League season.

Arsenal enter the final furlongs in no real sort of form. They never quite dominated Everton and might even have lost had the Toffees had a striker worthy of the name. Fulham's ten men scared them too, and a streaky 1-0 win at Craven Cottage came at the cost of losing Olivier Giroud for three matches for a rather unlucky but still dangerous foul on Stanislav Manolev.

At least Giroud will not need to be around to bear comparison to Van Persie, the target of the Emirates' rabidly carrion crowd, or have to take part in a guard of honour. United have their trophy back, Arsenal want their Champions League place back too. The champions' lack of competitive edge may provide a window of opportunity.

Arsenal player to watch - Theo Walcott: Olivier Giroud's absence leaves Wenger short of striking talent, deep irony in the light of Van Persie's return. He might revert to his early season experiment with Gervinho but does so at the risk of frustration. Lukas Podolski, despite his open desire for it, has rarely been granted a central position so Walcott may return to the role where a free-scoring run landed him a new contract. Pace on the break might be the key to unlocking the champions' defence.

Manchester United player to watch - Phil Jones: Sir Alex Ferguson was rather excitable in the aftermath of his 13th title win on Monday. He gushed praise for his players, and his backroom staff. He even made a post-match appearance for the press. Jones was lavished with laud. "I have no idea where his best position is. He could play anywhere on the pitch. But he will be one of the best players we have ever had." No pressure, then.

Key battle: Woijiech Szczesny v Robin Van Persie: With the caveat that Van Persie plays of course, and Ferguson may choose it so to get the hateful homecoming over in a game rendered almost meaningless for his team. The Pole in the goal is back in the team, after Lukasz Fabianksi's rib injury lessened his competition. There is plenty of talk that Arsenal are chasing a new goalkeeper in the summer so he plays under no little pressure. A few saves from his former captain would help his cause.

Trivia: Arsenal's trophyless run extends eight years, and their last trophy came against United in the 2005 FA Cup final in Cardiff. Even diehard Arsenal fans would admit that their team were rather fortuitous to get to a penalty shoot-out after United dominated the balance of play. A Paul Scholes miss and a Patrick Vieira conversion gave the Gunners victory, and their squad, including Van Persie, could celebrate.

Stats: Manchester United are the first team to be crowned champions with four games to spare since Arsenal's unbeaten season in 2003-04.

Odds: Arsenal are rather heavy favourites at 2.25 at bet365, while United are 3.30 to win. The draw is 3.60.

Prediction: Arsenal to win in the light of their visitors' lack of focus and probably an odd team selection from a manager with his eye on the summer and his next challenge.

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