Arsenal are flying high at the top of the table, can Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey give United the runaround?

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.

FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup 2016 — Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders

KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07:  The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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279 days after First Kick, it’s all come down to this: MLS Cup 2016, between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, a pair of first-timers in MLS’s postseason title decider.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

Fighting out of the red corner, it’s Sebastian Giovinco (4 goals, 4 assists in five playoff games in 2016), Jozy Altidore (5 goals, 4 assists) and Michael Bradley. Fighting out of the blue (and Rave Green) corner, it’s Nicolas Lodeiro (4 goals), Jordan Morris (2 goals, 1 assist) and a suddenly stout Sounders defense (3 goals conceded).

[ MORE: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges for each other ]

PST’s very own Nicholas Mendola will be reporting live from a frigid, frozen BMO Field (gametime temperatures expected to be in the low-20s), so make sure you follow him on Twitter, right here, and check back to PST for live updates, full-match recap, and post-game reaction from every angle.

Who: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders
What: MLS Cup 2016
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: BMO Field, Toronto, Canada
Why: To crown a champion

Deadly twin-bomb attack strikes police outside Istanbul stadium

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - DECEMBER 10: Ambulances arrive at the scene after explosions near the Besiktas Vodaphone Arena on December 10, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. According to reports, at least 13 people were killed after explosions believed to have been targeting riot police were set off near to the Besiktas Vodaphone Arena. (Photo by Getty Images)
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ISTANBUL (AP) Two explosions struck Saturday night outside a major soccer stadium in Istanbul after fans had gone home, in an attack that caused fatalities and wounded at least 20 police officers, Turkish authorities said. A private television channel put the wounded at nearly 70.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement saying “unfortunately we have martyrs and wounded” but did not specify the number.

One of the blasts was thought to be a car bomb and the second appeared to have been caused by a suicide bomber.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Police cordoned off the area as smoke rose from behind the newly built Vodafone Arena Stadium, known colloquially as Besiktas Stadium after the local team and neighborhood. Witnesses also heard gunfire after the explosions.

The first and larger explosion took place about 10:30 p.m. after the home team Besiktas beat visitor Bursaspor 2-1 in the Turkish Super League. Erdogan said the timing of the attack aimed to claim as many lives as possible.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who gave the initial casualty toll of 20 police officers, rushed from Ankara to Istanbul.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. This year, Istanbul has witnessed bombings attributed by authorities to the Islamic State group or claimed by Kurdish militants.

“It is thought to be a car bomb at a point where our special forces police were located, right after the match at the exit where Bursaspor fans” had earlier left, Soylu was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. “We have no information on the number of dead. God willing, we hope there won’t be any.”

[ MORE: La Liga — Real Madrid go 35 games unbeaten, set new club record ]

Speaking later to reporters in Istanbul, he said the first explosion took place on a hill adjacent to and overlooking the stadium. The second explosion struck Macka Park and was believed to be a suicide bomb.

The private NTV channel reported that the target of the first attack was a bus for riot police and said nearly 70 wounded were taken to hospitals.

Television images showed more than a dozen ambulances on a street hugging the stadium and a police helicopter flying overhead with its searchlights on. The window glass of nearby buildings was shattered by the blasts and coated the pavement. Investigators, including Istanbul Police Chief Mustafa Caliskan, were quickly on the scene.

The Besiktas sports club “strongly condemned” terrorism and the attack in a statement posted on its website.

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Bursaspor said none of the wounded were fans and issued a statement saying “we wish a speedy recovery to our wounded citizens.”

Turkey’s radio and television board issued a temporary coverage ban citing national security concerns. It said “to avoid broadcasts that can result in public fear, panic or chaos, or that will serve the aims of terrorist organizations.”

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin were also notified about the attack, Anadolu said.

La Liga: Real Madrid sets club record with 35 games without a loss

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid scores their 3rd goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 10, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Real Madrid set a new club record after a 35th consecutive match without a loss by beating Deportivo La Coruna 3-2 on another Sergio Ramos stoppage-time winner on Saturday.

Ramos, who scored an injury-time equalizer at Barcelona in the last round, headed in a corner kick after 90 minutes were up to maintain Madrid’s six-point lead over Barcelona atop the Spanish league.

Madrid appeared to have the milestone well in hand after Alvaro Morata gave the hosts the lead with a strike from distance, but former Madrid youth player Joselu Sanmartin went on for Deportivo and scored twice in a three-minute span to force Madrid into fight-back mode.

With Cristiano Ronaldo and several other first-choice players unavailable, Madrid needed little-used Mariano to level at 2-2 in the 84th before Ramos snatched the winner.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Under coach Zinedine Zidane, Madrid hasn’t lost since April 6 when it fell 2-1 at German side Wolfsburg in the Champions League knockout rounds. Madrid recovered from that setback to win its record 11th European Cup.

The previous unbeaten streak for the club founded in 1902 stood at 34 games from 1989, set by a side coached by Leo Beenhakker. Barcelona holds the mark for all Spanish clubs of 39 games in a row without a defeat which Madrid ended last season.

With Madrid set to travel to Japan to play the Club World Cup, Zidane opted to leave Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric off his squad. Gareth Bale was also missing while he recovers from a foot injury.

And if it weren’t for another dose of Ramos’ heroics, the decision to rest so many of his best players would have cost Zidane a setback at the Santiago Bernabeu. Instead, Ramos added to his reputation as Madrid’s stoppage-time savoir just a week after earning a valuable draw at Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona halted its skid of three consecutive draws in the league.

But first, Messi helped set up Luis Suarez for the 59th-minute opener, when he threaded a pass between four defenders to meet Jordi Alba’s run into the area. The left back squared the ball for Luis Suarez to tap home.

In similar fashion, Alba set up Messi to side-foot in his first goal in the 73rd. Messi got his second goal in stoppage time, when he took on three defenders, picked his spot and rifled home a left-footed strike.

Messi went to the top of the league scoring table with 11. Suarez pulled level with Madrid’s Ronaldo with 10.

“We knew that once we scored the first goal the match would open up for us, and thankfully the goal came soon enough,” Suarez said.

Promoted Osasuna remained bottom and winless at home since its return to the top tier.

In-form Real Sociedad climbed into fourth place and the Champions League positions after striker Willian Jose scored two early headers to take his tally to nine goals on the season.

After Dani Parejo pulled one back for Valencia from the spot in the 36th, Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves saved Carlos Vela’s penalty. The Brazilian goalie has saved 20 of 43 penalties he has faced in league competition.

The only drawback for Sociedad was Willian Jose leaving injured shortly after halftime, but his replacement Juan Jimenez added a third goal in injury time after Valencia lost Joao Cancelo to a second booking.

Valencia substitute Zakari Bakkali scored a solo goal in the final moments.

PL Sunday preview: Man United-Spurs; Chelsea, Liverpool in action

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspur reacts after missing a chance during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Four of the Premier League’s top six sides are in action on Sunday. Chelsea would go top of the PL with a win, while Tottenham Hotspur could climb as high as third, if Liverpool fail to go within a point of Arsenal for second. Manchester United, on the other hand, are falling away from the top-five pack with each passing week.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Chelsea’s eight-game winning streak is on the line when West Brom visit Stamford Bridge. Having won those eight games by a combined score of 22-2, Antonio Conte‘s side has hit its stride since the Italian manager switch to a three-man defense after losing to Arsenal on Sept. 24. Diego Costa is tied for the league lead in goals scored (11, alongisde Alexis Sanchez), and Eden Hazard (8 goals) looks much more like his 2014-15 self than the 2015-16 version on display last season. The last time West Brom won away to Chelsea in league action, the date was Sept. 30, 1978.

INJURIES: Chelsea — OUT: Oscar (illness), John Terry (leg), Kurt Zouma (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: David Luiz (knee) | West Brom — OUT: Saido Berahino (fitness)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Manchester United vs. Tottenham — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After winning two in a row at Old Trafford, in 2012 and 2014, Tottenham are without a point (or a goal) in their last two trips to the Theater of Dreams — something Mauricio Pochettino‘s side will be looking to rectify and strengthen their case for a top-four finish this season. Spurs bounced back from their first defeat of the season, to Chelsea two weeks ago, with a 5-0 thumping of Swansea City, a game in which Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen each scored twice. As for United, who are three PL games without a win (all 1-1 draws), a return to the UEFA Champions League is quickly slipping away for Jose Mourinho’s side, now six points back of fifth-place Spurs, and nine back of third-and fourth-place Liverpool and Manchester City.

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Chris Smalling (toe), Luke Shaw (undisclosed), James Wilson (knee surgery) | Tottenham — OUT: Vincent Janssen (ankle), Erik Lamela (hip)

[ MORE: La Liga — Real Madrid go 35 games unbeaten, set new club record ]

Southampton vs. Middlesbrough — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com

With their Europa League campaign put to rest prematurely this week, it’s time for a strong reaction by Southampton with 16th-place Middlesbrough visiting St. Mary’s Stadium. Currently 12th in the PL, Saints have just one win three goals to show for their efforts in their last six games (never scoring multiple goals in a game during that time). On the other side, Boro are four games unbeaten away from home (all draws), against the likes of West Ham United, Arsenal, Man City and Leicester City, though much of Aitor Karanka‘s top attacking talent could be unavailable on Sunday.

INJURIES: Southampton — OUT: Matthew Targett (hamstringe); RETURNING: Dusan Tadic (nose) | Boro — QUESTIONABLE: Alvaro Negredo (hamstring), Gaston Ramirez (foot), Jordan Rhodes (groin), George Friend (knee)

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Liverpool vs. West Ham — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After throwing away a pair of two-goal leads away to Bournemouth last weekend, Liverpool could use a bounce-back of their own, otherwise they could be seven points off the PL’s top spot by weekend’s end. With wins over the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal already in the bag this season, the Reds’ two losses have come at the hands of Bournemouth and Burnley, two sides presently residing in the bottom half of the table. West Ham will visit Anfield as the 18th-place side in the PL with just two points from their last five league games, having dropped into the relegation zone following Swansea City’s victory over Sunderland on Saturday.

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Philippe Coutinho (ankle), Daniel Sturridge (calf), Danny Ings (knee surgery), Sheyi Ojo (fitness), Joe Gomez (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Sadio Mane (knock), Joel Matip (ankle) | West Ham — OUT: