Events in north London will reveal the Premier League's first, perhaps only, Champions League final representatives...
Kick-Off: Tuesday May 5 2009, 20:45 CET, Emirates Stadium, London (0-1 on aggregate)
Work To Do
Whatever the reasons for the sudden mutual respect between Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson in the lead up to last week's first leg encounter – a quiet confidence in their sides' abilities? A realisation that Rafael Benitez is more unhinged than the pair of them combined? – the fact remains that both gaffers would find elimination painful to swallow.
At Old Trafford, United would have been out of sight were it not for Manuel Almunia's goalkeeping performance, eventually having to settle for John O'Shea's 18th minute strike. Although the Gunners weren't as defence-minded as Chelsea were during their trip to Barcelona's Camp Nou, it was clear that both were content to leave the bulk of the work for the return leg. Not taking an all-out gamble on bagging an away goal, then, was a gamble in itself.
Wenger has reason to believe that progress can be made in north London, though, for Arsenal are unbeaten in 24 Champions League matches at home – a five-year run – and have lost just once in United's last ten visits overall. Furthermore, they're yet to even concede a goal at home during this campaign, drawing only with Fenerbahce in Group G.
United have been a bit unpredictable on their continental travels this term. Group E draws at Villarreal and Celtic were followed by a 3-0 win at Aalborg. They went on to huff, puff and fail to score at Inter, before an early Cristiano Ronaldo screamer was enough to overcome Porto. Still, they haven't lost in the 11 away games since Milan dished out a beating in 2007.
Few who saw the first leg would disagree that there's a gulf between these sides, even if it has closed somewhat in recent weeks as the Gunners improve. Although Wenger's men are capable of producing something special, it must be remembered that they're playing the holders – a side 12 points clear of them in the Premier League with a game in hand. Some of the damning assessments of Arsenal's display last week were harsh, then, as it was always a big ask to go through.
Both sides were in domestic action over the weekend, but we didn't learn a great deal. Each put out very impressive looking second-string sides, and carved out comfortable wins: Arsenal 3-0 at Portsmouth, United 2-0 at Middlesbrough. Neither hit top gear, nor took unnecessary risks, and the first-teamers will benefit from the rest.
The Red Devils' approach could be similar to their Porto quarter-final: hit early, then work hard, knowing this time that their opponents would need three goals. Arsenal have more to offer than the Portuguese, though, and 'Fergie' could yet end up abusing copious amounts of chewing gum before a finalist emerges.
Last Five Results
02/05/09 Portsmouth 0-3 Arsenal - Prem
29/04/09 Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal - CL Semi 1st Leg
26/04/09 Arsenal 2-0 Middlesbrough - Prem
21/04/09 Liverpool 4-4 Arsenal - Prem
18/04/09 Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea - FA Cup Semi
02/05/09 Middlesbrough 0-2 Man Utd - Prem
29/04/09 Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal - CL Semi 1st Leg
25/04/09 Man Utd 5-2 Tottenham - Prem
22/04/09 Man Utd 2-0 Portsmouth - Prem
19/04/09 Man Utd 0-0P Everton - FA Cup Semi
Boss Wenger rang the changes at the weekend, resting all but Bacary Sagna, Alex Song and Theo Walcott of his potential starters. Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner, who bagged a brace against Pompey, are in their gaffer's thoughts after strong performances. "I know on Tuesday we will not win with 11 players," Wenger said after the game. "You win with 14 players."
Robin van Persie and Mikael Silvestre will face late fitness tests – the latter more in hope than expectation – while Gael Clichy, William Gallas and Eduardo da Silva remain sidelined. Andrey Arshavin is ineligible.
Song could drop into defence if Wenger doesn't want to throw a fringe man like Johan Djourou in at the deep end.
Possible starting XI: (4-4-2) Almunia; Sagna, Toure, Djourou, Gibbs; Walcott, Fabregas, Diaby, Nasri, Van Persie, Adebayor.
Edwin van der Sar, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand were all completely omitted from the squad as United beat Middlesbrough at the weekend, and all could return. Jonny Evans on stand-by if Ferdinand, who suffered bruised lungs during the first leg, doesn't make it. He has returned to training, though.
O'Shea, Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney started, yet will likely line up again on Tuesday. Patrice Evra, though, will require a late fitness test after limping out late on.
Wes Brown is unlikely to be risked following his recent return to full training, but reports suggest that Gary Neville could return if Evra remains crocked, with O'Shea moving to the left.
Other players who performed well at the weekend include Park Ji-Sung, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, although Michael Carrick, Fletcher and Anderson could well return to the midfield, leaving Park, Giggs and Carlos Tevez on a strong Bench.
UPDATE: Ferguson has confirmed that Ferdinand and Evra are both set to take part.
Possible Starting XI: (4-3-2-1) Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Anderson, Carrick; Ronaldo, Rooney; Berbatov.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Skipper Cesc Fabregas needs to be the man here. It's the biggest test of his first season as captain, and he's been back from injury long enough to be nearing something like top form. He's also the key to unleashing Emmanuel Adebayor, who's been a bit hit-or-miss of late.
It would be a bit silly to single out anyone other than Cristiano Ronaldo for a Champions League semi-final. As always, everyone's asking whether or not the Portuguese powerhouse will light up the big stage, albeit with slightly less venom following his Porto winner.
The hustle and bustle of Rooney has been crucial of late, and the experience of Giggs a great bonus. It's CR7 who will be expected to produce the special moment, though.
The Gunners are overdue the Champions League title, it must be said. And even though this isn't the best batch of Wenger's reign, they're certainly a self-assured bunch who believe in their home advantage.
If United score in normal time, it's all over. However, I think they're in for a very tough game, and may rue not finishing off the Gunners at Old Trafford.
Extra time could decide it: United have the experience, but Arsenal displayed their 'mental strength' to oust Roma previously – and in every other game of 2009 according to 'The Professor' – and are to be written off at your peril.
Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United
Greg Ptolomey, Goal.com
Think you've got what it takes to win great prizes? Join Goal.com Manager at http://fantasy.goal.com - it's FREE!