Manchester United and Arsenal’s players will be hoping to avoid the encumbrance of a Champions League play-off tie when they meet at Old Trafford in the Premier League Sunday.
Two points above United in third place (and three points below second-place Manchester City), Arsenal are on course for automatic Champions League qualification, with the team finishing fourth obliged to enter the competition in the play-off round in late August.
But victory for United would take them above Arsenal and although Arsene Wenger’s side have a game in hand at home to struggling Sunderland on Wednesday, defeat is a complication they could do without.
Furthermore, with the north London club having lost 1-0 at home to a Swansea City side with nothing to play for on their last outing — ending a 10-game unbeaten run — Sunderland’s visit no longer seems the formality it perhaps once did.
United are effectively guaranteed to finish no lower than fourth, having opened up a six-point gap over fifth-place Liverpool with a significantly better goal difference.
Manager Louis van Gaal has therefore achieved his minimum objective for the campaign, but he also knows that snatching a podium place from Arsenal’s grasp would give his team a psychological edge going into next season. “I think it (finishing fourth) was a big challenge,” said the Dutchman, whose side halted a run of three straight defeats with a hard-fought 2-1 win at Crystal Palace last weekend.
“So, I think we did very good, but it is not good enough because at the end, we want to be champions. Now, at the end, we want to be third because that is still possible. We can put pressure on Arsenal and that is what we want to do on Sunday.”
The two sides have claimed a 2-1 away victory apiece in their encounters to date this season, with United winning at the Emirates Stadium in the league in November and Arsenal prevailing in the FA Cup in March.