Robbie Earle talks Manchester United v. Arsenal: ‘Wrap Giroud in cotton wool’

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If there’s one Premier League match to have circled on your calendar this weekend it’s Manchester United v. Arsenal (Sunday 11:00am ET on NBCSN or watch live via NBC Sports Live Extra).

The Gunners haven’t won a league match away at United since 2006 but from Robbie Earle’s point of view, Old Trafford simply isn’t the fortress it once was.

Ouch. But don’t despair too much United fans, because from injuries to a difficult string of matches, Arsenal have problems of their own.

So I sat down with the former Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’ member and current NBC Sports Premier League pundit to get his take on what to expect in this weekend’s marquee matchup.

Let’s get stuck in.

WHICH CLUB NEEDS TO WIN THIS GAME MORE – MANCHESTER UNITED OR ARSENAL?

Manchester United. Simply because if they loose that means they’ll be trailing the leaders by 11 points, and I’m not sure they can make that up. For Arsenal, the result in this match won’t prove or disprove whether they are title contenders.

People are talking about United being on a nice run but beating Stoke and Fulham isn’t much to brag about. Beating Arsenal, however, would be a massive deal. It would close the gap to five points and then you have the international break coming up to help them re-focus on getting back in the title race.

ARSENAL HAVEN’T WON IN THE LEAGUE AT OLD TRAFFORD SINCE 2006, HOW MUCH WILL THAT FACTOR IN?

I don’t think Old Trafford means that much anymore. That’s one of the things that United have lost during this transition – the fear that opposing teams used to have of playing at Old Trafford. We’ve seen Southampton and Stoke go there and play quite well. So while I think Arsenal will respect Old Trafford, I don’t think they’ll fear it. It’s simply not the fortress that it once was.

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Phil Jones’ man-to-man marking skills could be useful against a midfield like Arsenal.

IF YOU’RE DAVID MOYES, WHAT’S THE BIGGEST WORRY YOU HAVE IN THIS MATCH?

The midfield. So far its been Carrick +1 with Fellaini, Cleverley or Kagawa and I’m still not sure what the best pairing is for United.

Against a team like Arsenal, United’s wide midfield players will be key because the Gunners love to outnumber teams on the wings like they did last week against Liverpool. And if they’re able to do that against Arsenal, the holding players will get stretched wide to the touchlines and this could be big trouble for United.

Despite some injury issues with Flamini and Wilshere, Arsenal still have Ramsey, Ozil, Cazorla, Arteta and Rosicky and I’m not sure United can stop the quick, incisive passing of the Gunners.

One thing United may consider is changing their formation. This could be a game where we might see Rooney drop a bit deeper throughout the match. Because there’s such a dearth of midfield quality at United we could see Rooney in more of what I like to call a “50/50 position” where he’s used 50% as a defender and 50% as an attacker.

With Arsenal, there’s always a period during the game where they dominate possession in the midfield. Rooney will have to recognize when that happens and drop deep into the midfield to help United through it. Once it ends, Rooney can then push on and focus on his work up front. But unless Rooney drops back to key on players like Ramsey and Ozil, it could be problems for United.

One player Moyes could use in the holding role against Arsenal is Phil Jones. He’s defensive minded and loves to match up one-on-one. He marked Cristiano Ronaldo off the park in the Champions League last year and did the same to Marouane Fellaini when he was starring at Everton. For me, Jones is slightly better being one place beyond the mistake that hurts you. When he plays in the back and makes a mistake, he costs United goals. But in the midfield he can make those mistakes and still have the defense to back him up.

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Nemanja Vidic’s organizational skills are a major reason for his impressive return to form.

UNITED’S BACK FOUR HAS BEEN STRUGGLING, WHO IS THE KEY MAN THERE?

I think Vidic is so important to United right now. He made a couple of really telling challenges against Fulham last week. He’s what I like to call a “natural born defender.” He tackles, elbows you off the ball and he looks ugly – defenders should be ugly.

Vidic is a proper defender and I get the sense that he trains everyday like he plays. I bet he kicks you when he’s training. And I think United have missed a bit of that strength and power and physicality at the back. Against Stoke, they looked a bit light-weight to me. I thought Peter Crouch bullied Jones and Evans.

I think Vidic is clever because he’s very tactically aware. He reminds me of how Steve Bruce was at Manchester United. Whenever I used to play against Bruce, I’d think: ‘I’d love to get Bruce one-on-one because I can run him.’ But I never did because Bruce was so clever at organizing his defenders around him. He’d keep Gary Neville and Gary Pallister really tight to him. Then he’d drop Roy Keane right in front of him making it impossible to get in on him.

And that’s exactly what Vidic is starting to do – he’s constantly directing people around him, which helps him deal with problems before they happen. Vidic can read where the danger is going to be and deal with it. That little bit of instruction has been missing the last few years but now Vidic is on it.

It happens in all levels of football, you have to change the way you play. And the clever ones make sure they’re not exposed. I think John Terry’s done the same thing at Chelsea. Last year everyone was saying how his body is broke but this year he’s been outstanding. He gets Ivanovic and Cole tight to him and has Ramires parked right in front. Most importantly, Terry doesn’t put himself into areas where he can be exposed. There was a time when he used to go out on the wings and get roasted. He doesn’t do that anymore. He lets someone else handle that business and stays central. It’s a blueprint that I see Vidic following and it’s crucial to United’s success defensively.

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Shinji Kagawa may need to reinvent himself to find his way into United’s squad.

DO YOU SEE SHINJI KAGAWA FITTING INTO THIS MATCH?

At the moment, no. I think you go with a player with a bit more work rate and physicality, someone like Valencia.

Kagawa was outstanding at Dortmund. Brilliant. But his problem at United is that Rooney operates in the same pockets of space that he likes to play in. And Rooney’s ability to dominate these areas is probably United’s biggest strength – so Kagawa becomes the odd man out.

The only way Kagawa becomes a major factor against United is if they can get a lot of possession. And I don’t see that happening against Arsenal so if Moyes did use him he would become a bit of a passenger.

For Kagawa, it could be a situation of needing to reinvent himself. He could become a “link-continuity player,” one who gets the ball from his defenders and is comfortable receiving it and moving it up the pitch. It’s essentially a cog role that links up the midfield and defense. Unfortunately, he hasn’t shown himself to be that kind of player yet. He much prefers to be in an advanced role where he can pop in and out of space to make things happen.

That’s a luxury that United can’t afford right now. They’re too rigid. It’s funny though, you could plug Kagawa into the fluidity of Arsenal’s midfield and he’d be perfect.

HOW WILL UNITED BREAK DOWN THE ARSENAL DEFENSE?

They’ll be targeting the center-halves of Arsenal, Koscielny and Mertersacker. I think those two have done quite well this season, they look a bit more robust in defense, but Rooney and Van Persie love to attack through the middle so that’s where they’ll challenge Arsenal.

Van Persie is a great drifter. He loves to get himself in those spaces between the two center-halves so he can make darting runs in behind them and into space. It’s a technique that I call a “false position” for a center-forward, where it tricks both center-halves into thinking they have him covered when in reality, neither of them do. This positioning creates uncertainty among defenders and I think United will look to get Rooney that ball in between the midfield and forward lines so that he can find Van Persie making those darting runs in behind.

Speaking of this strategy really highlights how disappointing the wide players at United have been of late. They used to have guys like Beckham or Ronaldo who you had to worry about outside but that’s no longer the case. So I don’t see United’s wingers eliminating Arsenal’s full-backs like they used to. The key to United’s attack will be in those central areas where they look to hurt teams like they did Fulham last weekend.

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Olivier Giroud has been immense for Arsenal, making him the one man the Gunners can’t afford to lose.

HOW IMPORTANT IS OLIVIER GIROUD TO ARSENAL?

He’s immense. The one thing this Arsenal team cannot afford is an injury to Giroud. He’s the man they need to wrap in cotton wool. As much of an impact as Ozil has made if he went out of the team they could still bring in near like-for-like quality. But if Giroud pulls a hamstring or turns an ankle, Bendtner is not the man to lead the line the same way.

Of course, when Podolski and Walcott return from injury they could play that striker role. But I was also thinking that Wenger could play a False 9 if he wanted.

It would be brilliant, like Total Football. You’d love to see the experiment with the freedom that Wenger affords his players.

THE PARITY OF THE PREMIER LEAGUE IS ASTOUNDING – WHEN WILL WE SEE SEPARATION?

That stretch of matches around Christmas and New Years comes fast and furious and there’s a lot of points to be had. I think at that time we begin to see some separation as teams begin to sharpen their focus.

When I was a player January was the time of year when teams begin to map out what they want to accomplish in the next month. They’ll look at the schedule and say that by this point in time we need to get X amount of wins. I’ve worked with managers who like to physically show you how close you are to the mark.

So for example, with relegation. One of our coaches used to have a board up with a 40 point line. And with every point he’d move the ruler up a bit closer to that mark. It’s something really simple but we used to go in on a Monday and you’d literally see yourself advancing, getting closer to the mark. All these little things matter – keeping players challenged and motivated to what the targets and goals are.

That period, January and February, there are loads of team meetings. It’s literally meetings all the time about the FA Cup, the Capital Cup, the Champions League and the Premier League. It’s all about goal setting and the mindset. You’re into that part of the season where your fitness is good so mentally it’s so important because it’s make it or break it.

Spartak and Zenit fined in latest Russia fan racism cases

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MOSCOW (AP) Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg have both been fined for racist chants by their fans, the latest such incident in World Cup host nation Russia.

Spartak’s fans were accused of aiming monkey chants at FC Tosno player Nuno Rocha, who is black, while some Zenit supporters allegedly chanted a Nazi slogan during a league game.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

The clubs must each pay a 100,000-ruble ($1,600) fine, and Spartak has been hit with a partial stadium closure for its next cup game, state news agency RIA Novosti quotes Russian Football Union disciplinary committee head Artur Grigoryants as saying.

The verdict comes after FIFA charged Russia with racist abuse of France players during last month’s friendly.

Zenit has also faced two racism charges from UEFA this season.

Europa League: Arsenal, Marseille host semifinal 1st legs

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Arsenal’s Champions League dreams could be in for a rude awakening against tournament-tested Atletico Madrid.

The Premier League vs. La Liga match-up is one of two Europa League semifinal first legs set to be served up Sunday, with Marseille and Red Bull Salzburg meeting in the other.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

There’s something romantic about Arsene Wenger closing out his time at Arsenal against French opposition in Lyon, but Atleti and Salzburg won’t step aside for poetics.

Both matches kickoff ay 3:05 p.m. ET

Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid

It’s a bit stunning that this tie has no history considering both club’s statures in their leagues and Europe, but that’s what we’ll se when Arsenal welcomes Atleti for the first leg.

Arsenal boasts two of the top 10 performers in the UEL this season — it would be three had the Gunners not sold Theo Walcott — and are paced by Aaron Ramsey, who has four goals and an assist. Mesut Ozil, who’s ready to return to the pitch, has the reverse with a goal and four helpers.

The Gunners have outscored UEL opposition 29-10 this season.

It’s no surprise that Antoine Griezmann has been Atleti’s best attacker since the Madrid side dropped out of the UCL to run rampant through the UEL knockout rounds. Atleti beat Copenhagen 5-1, Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1, and Sporting Lisbon 2-1 for an aggregate score line of 15-3.

Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg

Don’t expect this to be a simple case of Ligue 1 bossing inferior opposition: This pair met in the group stage, with the Austrian side winning at home and drawing 0-0 in France.

Salzburg has shown its mettle in various ways during the UEL. After allowing just one goal in an unbeaten group stage, they’ve won 4-3 over Real Sociedad, 2-1 against Borussia Dortmund, and 6-5 versus Lazio. That’s no easy road, and Marseille represents another big challenge.

Marseille is bidding to make its first European final since 2004, and has been led by Dimitri Payet‘s three goals and four assists, and Lucas Ocampos’ four goals and one assist. Marseille has knocked off RB Leipzig, Athletic Bilbao, and Braga after the group stage.

Names you’ll need to know from Salzburg: defenders Stefan Lainer and Paulo Miranda have been spectacular, and Munas Dabbur and Valon Berisha have each scored five times in the tournament.

Mourinho on longtime nemesis Wenger: ‘We can be friends in future’

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Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have had a poor relationship, but the former thinks he’s soon to get along with the latter.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

Manchester United boss Mourinho, 55, heaped praise on the departing Arsenal manager ahead of the two sides’ Sunday meeting at Old Trafford (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com), saying the Frenchman has earned much respect.

Branding Wenger “iconic,” Mourinho says his fiery rivalry with Wenger stemmed from Arsenal’s stature in the Premier League when the Portuguese took over Chelsea.

“If he respects me even 50 percent of what I respect him we can even be friends in the future,” Mourinho told Sky Sports News. “I have lots of respect for him. But the reality is that he was at Arsenal, he was the champion and I came to the country in 2004 and wanted to steal his title. That’s football.”

Mourinho said he’s tried to show his respect for Wenger, 68, over the past few seasons. It may become a passable relationship, but we find it hard to believe the pair will be dining together on a regular basis as the sun sets on their managerial careers (Mou has a while to go, we think).

Real’s Modric on Bayern feeling unlucky: “That’s their problem”

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Bayern Munich produced far more chances than visiting Real Madrid in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg in Germany, but lost 2-1 at the Allianz Arena.

Franck Ribery butchered an open shot at goal, Robert Lewandowski beat Keylor Navas but didn’t score late, and Thomas Mueller missed getting contact on a shot inside the six.

[ MORE: Bayern 1-2 Real Madrid ]

It was that kind of day, and Mueller is baffled that his team did not finish more than Joshua Kimmich’s opener.

“Everybody is wondering why this game is 1-2 for Madrid,” Mueller reportedly said. “We still cannot believe it.”

The quote comes from BeIN Sport’s Tancredi Palmeri, who has a stinging rebuke from Real Madrid maestro Luka Modric.

Real wasn’t great on Wednesday, but also limited their big mistakes to one: Marcelo’s lapse of judgment which helped Kimmich to open the scoring for Bayern Munich.

The hosts had a huge giveaway from Rafinha on the match-winner, and backup backstop Sven Ulreich didn’t have a phenomenal day on either goal. Throw in Arjen Robben’s injury requiring an 8th minute substitution, and Bayern did not have much good fortune on the day.

This one, though, doesn’t seem over, even with the tie moving to the Bernabeu.