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Arsenal’s 6 key fixtures where title will be won or lost

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Optimism was rife in the red half of the north London divide heading into the 2022/23 season, but very few supporters, if any, projected this sort of majesty from Mikel Arteta’s Gunners.

Arsenal currently sit in pole position at the top of the Premier League table, five points ahead of reigning champions, Manchester City, who have played a game more.

Their form has failed to waver despite the absence of key man Gabriel Jesus, who had a transformative effect on the Gunners’ attack before the World Cup, with Eddie Nketiah filling in ably.

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While some are still projecting their demise, the vast majority have come to realise Arsenal’s legitimacy as a potential title winner.

However, there’s still a long way to go in the 2022/23 season, and here are six fixtures that will define the Gunners’ bid for the Premier League title.

The Gunners have passed every test they’ve faced this season, but this will undoubtedly be their toughest. The current top two meet at the Emirates on what’s poised to be a brisk Wednesday night in mid-February.

It’s a mammoth encounter as Manchester City come to town in what will be billed as an early decisive contest in the title race.

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Arsenal will be hoping that their healthy lead is still intact by the time this fixture rolls around, with the two teams facing off in a prelude to their Premier League clashes in the FA Cup fourth round.

It’s been a bleak season for Liverpool thus far. There have been multiple factors in their 2022/23 demise, with injuries playing a significant role.

The likes of Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and now Virgil van Dijk are enduring lengthy spells on the sidelines, but each of these players are expected to be back in action during the second half of the campaign. Therefore the Reds should improve as the season progresses, and this trip to Anfield will be far from easy for the current table-toppers.

While Liverpool’s home ground hasn’t quite been the fortress of years past this term, Arsenal haven’t claimed victory away at the Reds since 2012.

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While the first Premier League meeting between the two sides may not be a title decider as such, their April encounter very well could be if they each continue on their current paths.

Guardiola has dominated the duel with his apprentice since Arteta took charge of the Gunners, but never before will the Spaniard take such an excellent side to the Etihad.

Manchester City haven’t been beaten by Arsenal in the Premier League since 2015, with the Citizens winning 12 of the last 13 meetings in all competitions – often convincingly.

Stamford Bridge has been a happy hunting ground for Arteta’s Arsenal and they beat a depleted Chelsea side in impressive fashion before the World Cup. Their 1-0 triumph was one of their most convincing displays of the season, but the Blues will look almost unrecognisable in the reverse fixture.

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This is the Mykhailo Mudryk derby, and if the Ukrainian’s exciting cameo at Anfield is anything to go by, he could have a big say at the Emirates during the run-in.

Chelsea will be desperate to get one over their London rivals and compromise their title bid.

St. James’ Park was the cauldron where Arsenal’s Champions League dream succumbed to the fire last season. The Gunners stuttered down the stretch to allow Tottenham to pip them to fourth spot, but hey, at least things have turned out okay for Arteta’s side.

The Magpies, who are making a strong bid for a top-four finish themselves, are the league’s most stubborn outfit. They’re the only domestic side to keep a clean sheet against the Gunners this season, while they are also yet to taste defeat on home soil.

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This is an incredibly tough fixture for the title hopefuls. St. James’ Park will be rocking, and memories of May 2022 will loom large.

It could come down to the final day, and while their side’s position at the top is currently a healthy one, many Arsenal supporters will surely take this outcome.

Thus, the home game against Wolves could be hugely significant for Arteta’s team. This is poised to be a title race that goes down to the wire, and Julen Lopetegui’s men could have a big say in deciding the victor.

Manchester City, meanwhile, are away at Brentford on the final day.

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EPL

Player rating as Red Devils seal passage to Wembley

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Manchester United secured their place in only a second major final in six seasons on Wednesday night with a 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford.

Goals from Anthony Martial and Fred decided the game, bumping up an already comfortable aggregate lead from the first leg to 5-0, setting up a clash with Newcastle at Wembley this month.

The hosts had mild penalty appeals when Alejandro Garnacho went down under pressure from Neco Williams and Willy Boly. But nearly half an hour had passed before either side had a clear sight of goal, with a powerful Casemiro header saved by Wayne Hennessey’s outstretched right foot.

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Despite chasing an aggregate deficit, Forest had seen very little of the ball but probably should have taken the lead on a rare foray forward. A throw-in gave Brennan Johnson the chance to dribble his way through, but the pacey Welshman’s finish straight at Tom Heaton lacked conviction.

Antony’s cleanly hit strike from outside the box in the closing stages of the first half had Hennessey worried as he flew to his left, seeing the ball just rise over the crossbar.

Wout Weghorst then struck the post right before the interval after an otherwise quiet opening 45 minutes from the Dutchman, while Forest winger Emmanuel Dennis had his head in his hands when his goal-bound effort was inadvertently blocked by teammate Sam Surridge.

United had stronger penalty appeals not long into the second half when Weghorst nicked the ball in front of Forest defender Scott McKenna, whose attempt to clear then upended the forward. It was given the VAR treatment but the on-field decision surprisingly stood.

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Tempers flared a little around the hour mark, with tackles flying and Alejandro Garnacho involved in an ongoing fracas with Johnson and Williams on Forest’s right flank. The young Argentine forced Hennessey into a good save at the near post in one of his final acts before Ten Hag made a flurry of changes, including the return of Jadon Sancho after more than three months out.

With United already starting to turn the screw, those changes triggered the second half goals. The first went to Martial, capitalising on a rebound after fellow sub Marcus Rashford had seen an attempt blocked following an initial run by the Frenchman.

Sancho was then involved in the second goal not long after, feeding Bruno Fernandes on the right. The United skipper’s exquisite outside-of-the-foot ball to the far post was then put back across the box by Rashford for Fred to score an easy tap-in.

Heaton still had to have his wits about him late on to preserve his clean sheet, throwing a big hand up to parry a powerful drive from Danilo as Forest searched for a very late consolation. With the goal gaping, Surridge skied his own attempt on the rebound.

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GK: Tom Heaton – 6/10 – A deserved opportunity but hardly a busy night until a spectacular late save.

RB: Aaron Wan-Bissaka – 7/10 – Took up an interesting position relatively high up the pitch and often tucked inside that made it difficult for Dennis and made space for Antony.

CB: Lisandro Martinez – 7/10 – Commanded every situation.

CB: Raphael Varane – 7/10 – Always composed and in control.

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LB: Luke Shaw – 6/10 – Back after illness and can be satisifed with this performance.

CM: Casemiro – 8/10 – Another fine example of the type of performance that has really driven the whole team’s resurgence this season.

CM: Fred – 7/10 – Has been thriving alongside his fellow countryman and could play an awful lot more now that Christian Eriksen is out for a few months.

RM: Antony – 6/10 – Inches away from a great goal and posed a threat early on.

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AM: Bruno Fernandes (c) – 8/10 – Put in a star turn, especially after moving to the right in the seconc half. Went close to a goal of his own late on.

LM: Alejandro Garnacho – 7/10 – Becoming more and more at home in this team.

ST: Wout Weghorst – 6/10 – A quiet opening 45 minutes until hitting the post on the stroke of half-time. Probably deserved a penalty after the break.

Substitutes

SUB: Marcus Rashford (62′ for Garnacho) – 7/10

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SUB: Jadon Sancho (62′ for Antony) – 7/10

SUB: Anthony Martial (63′ for Weghorst) – 7/10

SUB: Victor Lindelof (80′ for Casemiro) – N/A

SUB: Harry Maguire (80′ for Varane) – N/A

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Manager

Erik ten Hag – 9/10 – Went with a strong side to avoid any slip-ups, but it was the substitutions and slight tweak in shape as Fernandes moved to the right that made the difference.

GK: Wayne Hennessey – 6/10 – Made a handful of saves to keep it 0-0 for at least a while.

RB: Neco Williams – 7/10 – Had his hands full with Garnacho but ultimately outlasted his imprssive opponent, before switching to the other side.

CB: Scott McKenna – 5/10 – Arguably fortunate not to give away a penalty for a swinging leg that caught Weghorst.

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CB: Willy Boly – 6/10 – Stood tall for long periods until the resistance finally broke.

LB: Renan Lodi – 5/10 – Barely touched the ball and had a tough night of defending.

CM: Remo Freuler (c) – 5/10 – Tough night against a very good United midfield.

CM: Orel Mangala – 5/10 – Similar story to Freuler, found it hard going.

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RM: Brennan Johnson – 6/10 – Should have done with a great first half chance that he created himself, having already done the hard bit.

AM: Gustavo Scarpa – 6/10 – Had promising moments just as in the first leg.

LM: Emmanuel Dennis – 5/10 – Late replacement for the injured Jesse Lingard and initially struggled to get into the game. Had one decent chance blocked by his own teammate.

ST: Sam Surridge – 5/10 – With little of the ball, frustrations got the better of him when he cleaned out Raphael Varane to pick up a yellow card.

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Substitutes

SUB: Alex Mighten (64′ for Johnson) – 5/10

SUB: Danilo (64′ for Freuler) – 6/10

SUB: Serge Aurier (65′ for Lodi) – 5/10

SUB: Oliver Hammond (86′ for Scarpa) – N/A

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SUB: Detlef Osong (86′ for Surridge) – N/A

Manager

Steve Cooper – 7/10 – Set up his side well and they did admirably to hold out for as long as they did.

Player of the match – Bruno Fernandes (Man Utd)



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Jadon Sancho makes long-awaited Man Utd return

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Jadon Sancho made his first Man Utd appearance since October as a substitute in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford.

Sancho last featured in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea just over three months ago, a game that saw him substituted early in the second half on that occasion.

A combination of illness and a loss of form subsequently ruled the £73m winger out of action until the World Cup break. He then didn’t travel with the rest of the remaining United squad for a mid-season training camp in Spain, with manager Erik ten Hag stating he wasn’t fit enough.

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The United boss also suggested that Sancho had been struggling mentally. The player was placed on an individual programme to improve his fitness and eventually rejoined his teammates in first-team training two weeks ago. He wasn’t deemed ready to return against Forest in the first leg, but a decision was made earlier this week to include him in the squad for the second leg.

With United already leading 3-0 on aggregate, Ten Hag decided the time was right for Sancho to make his comeback with just under half an hour left to play in the game.

The former Borussia Dortmund star was greeted with ‘Sancho! Sancho! Sancho!’ chants from the Old Trafford crowd and immediately took up a ‘number 10’ role that was slightly different to what United fans have previously seen from him.



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Andre Ayew arrives in England for Premier League talks

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Ghana legend Andre Ayew is due to arrive in England on Wednesday evening, ahead of talks with a number of Premier League clubs, sources have confirmed to 90min.

The 33-year-old, once of Swansea and West Ham, is a free agent after leaving Qatari club Al-Sadd last month and his availability has not gone unnoticed.

90min revealed on deadline day that interest was emerging, but as he is a free agent there was never a need to get the deal done by the close of the window.

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Sources have confirmed to 90min that Ayew is arriving in London on Wednesday evening, with talks scheduled with a number of clubs.

Everton, who are failed to bring a striker in on deadline day, are one of the clubs due to meet with Ayew. But they are not alone in holding an interest in him, with as his former club West Ham, as well as Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest all keen.

Crystal Palace are also believed to be considering putting an offer to the veteran forward.

One potential issue is Ayew’s work permit situation – but his representatives are confident that on appeal someone with other 100 senior international caps would be able to secure one.

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