LONDON, April 25 (Reuters) - The irony could be almost too much for Arsenal fans to bear on Sunday with their team expected to form a guard of honour for newly-crowned champions Manchester United.
It is a long time since Premier League clashes between the old adversaries in April were often “title deciders” with the only real significance of the outcome of Sunday’s match (1500)being its effect on Arsenal’s chances of finishing in the top four.
Arsenal’s title challenge effectively ended last August when top goalscorer Robin van Persie was sold to United and they replaced him with Frenchman Olivier Giroud who will be suspended for a match his side dare not lose.
Van Persie took his tally to 24 goals on Monday with a hat-trick against Aston Villa as United wrapped up a 20th league title and Arsenal fans can only wonder at what might have been had he not left to fulfil his ambitions at Old Trafford.
The Dutchman, who had just one FA Cup winners medal to show for his eight and a half years in north London, scored as Arsenal went down 2-1 at Old Trafford earlier in the season.
After a recent lull, his dazzling display against Villa made him favourite to end the season as the league’s top scorer for a second consecutive campaign.
Once the pre-match niceties are over at the Emirates the old animosity that used to accompany these fixtures could re-surface as there remains plenty at stake.
With Manchester City likely to finish runners-up, capital trio Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are scrapping for the other two Champions League slots.
Arsenal are third with 63 points with four games left, a point ahead of Chelsea and two ahead of Tottenham, both of whom have five games left to play.
United know that if they win their last four games, which also include a home game against Chelsea, they will set a new Premier League points record of 96.
Chelsea host mid-table Swansea City on Sunday (1400) while Tottenham, reinvigorated after a 3-1 victory over Manchester City last week, travel to relegation battlers Wigan Athletic on Saturday (1400) hoping to exert some pressure on their top-four rivals.
When Arsene Wenger took over as Arsenal manager in 1996 it marked the beginning of rivalry with Manchester United that was as intense as anything else in world soccer.
The personality clash between Wenger and United manager Alex Ferguson fanned the flames and things regularly combusted on the pitch, and off it as was the case when Arsenal’s players hurled pizza at their rivals after one particularly feisty encounter.
From the 1997-98 season, when Wenger’s Arsenal won the title, to United’s triumph in 2002-03, the two sides finished first and second on five occasions.
First Chelsea, and now Man City, have replaced Arsenal as the main challengers to Ferguson’s Old Trafford empire, but the sight of Wenger and Ferguson in opposing dugouts is still pure box office for the Premier League.
The return of Van Persie, who is bizarrely omitted from the “50 Greatest Players” section on Arsenal’s website despite scoring 132 goals, will spice up the atmosphere even further.
A home game against Swansea, Michael Laudrup’s eye-catching side who are safe in mid-table, looks like the ideal fixture for Chelsea after their midweek exertions in the Europa League.
Wigan have far more at stake, however, as they try and avoid the unusual double of reaching an FA Cup final and being relegated from the top flight in the same season.
Consecutive defeats by Manchester City and West Ham United have left Roberto Martinez’s side third from bottom, three points behind Aston Villa with a game in hand.
The stakes could not be higher as they prepare to face Andre Villas-Boas’s Tottenham.
With a three billion pounds TV deal for the Premier League starting next season, there has never been a worse time to get relegated and a club of Wigan’s modest means could struggle to return to the top flight if they fail to perform their annual Houdini act and avoid the drop.
Likewise, Tottenham fear missing out on the riches of the Champions League again after being denied entry last season despite coming fourth could make it hard to resist advances for their dynamic leading scorer Gareth Bale.
Victory for Wigan would allow them to move out of the bottom three, at least until Aston Villa host Sunderland on Monday (1900).
The bottom two clubs meet at the Madjeski Stadium on Sunday (1230) where the losers of Reading against Queens Park Rangers will be relegated. (Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Justin Palmer)