‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’*
It may be late on in the season, but Arséne Wenger and José Mourinho still have much to contemplate before Sunday’s seismic Premier League clash at the Emirates, with multiple storylines waiting to be written as one team on the ascension meets another on the decline.
What more can be said about Arsenal?
Familiarity may have bred contempt for the Gunners, but, ironically, this might be exactly what they need as the season reaches its apex.
Their latest defeat in a year of mentally damaging ones came at the hands of arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur, no less, with the away side losing 2-0 in the last North London derby at White Hart Lane.
At a time when consistency, physicality and mental fortitude is key, Wenger will have yet more surgery to perform as he attempts to patch up his squad for another pivotal match which could make a tumultuous situation even worse.
Top of the agenda will be the question of whether the Gunners persist with a vogue 3-4-2-1 formation that served them so well against Manchester City and Middlesbrough, or revert to type to match Manchester United’s favoured 4-2-3-1.
Smaller conundrums include the central defensive partner for Laurent Koscielny, who leads the front line ahead of Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil, and who takes Granit Xhaka’s place, the combative midfielder having been ruled out with an ankle injury.
Whatever remedy Wenger attempts to revive his team with must work this time, or Arsenal’s league campaign will flatline.**
Mourinho, also has multiple objectives to prioritise from – his ambitions in the Europa League, his expectations for the Premier League and his love for beating Wenger.
After a slow start and seemingly perpetual stint in sixth place, the Red Devils now have multiple routes through which they can potentially march towards Champion League qualification.
United have leapfrogged their opponents by accumulating an impressive, if unspectacular, unbeaten Premier League record that dates back to their 4-0 defeat at the hands of current leaders Chelsea in late October.
This turn of form and fortune has been carried into their Europa League campaign. Despite losing twice in a tedious group phase, United have won six of their last eight in the competition, the latest happening away at Celta Vigo in the Semi-Final First Leg, courtesy of Marcus Rashford’s fine free-kick.
The Portuguese manager will have to choose which fixture list suits his team best, balancing a jaded team without the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, with a chance to extend his unbeaten Premier League record against Wenger.
Despite all of the questions, one thing is or sure – how the two managers approach Sunday’s game will have huge ramifications on their club’s futures, as the result will ultimately serve as an antidote for one, and poison for the other.***
*The final three lines of Robert Frost’s 1916 poem, The Road Not Taken.
**COME ON YOU GUNNERS.
***PERSONAL DISCLAIMER: If Arsenal lose and any of my United supporting mates wonder why I have dropped off of the face of the Earth, it’s because I have been poisoned by said defeat and need approximately a week to recover. I’ll be alright by the next game.
[Image provided courtesy of Sky Sports.]