Lee Dixon: Today's match might be in the FA Cup – but it could go a long way to deciding the title

The Weekend Dossier
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Although the FA Cup is not the priority for either Manchester United or Arsenal, today's game at Old Trafford is of tremendous importance to both sides, given what has happened recently.

Arsenal travel north on the back of their deflating defeat to Barcelona, having gone out of two competitions in just over a week. Manchester United, however, have lost three of their last five games in the league, and what's more were comprehensively beaten by Liverpool in their last outing.

Sir Alex Ferguson might have other things on his mind right now, such as next week's Champions League second leg with Marseilles, but the form United have been in makes today's game a massive one for his team.

If they were coming off a run of 10 wins, then things might be different. But they have lost their last two games, to Chelsea and Liverpool, and need to get a result. They will be hugely disappointed at the moment. They had played so well in the first half at Chelsea, one of the best performances from them all season, but after halftime Chelsea got back into the game and went on to win it.

Then they were comprehensively outplayed by Liverpool in one of the biggest games of the season. I think Ferguson got the tactics completely wrong against Liverpool. He played 4-4-2 with two wingers, and Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in midfield, and they were completely over-run in the middle. I lost count of the number of times Raul Meireles ran through from deep. I heard that Darren Fletcher was ill, but it was the formation that was wrong. I thought they got murdered out there.

Maybe Ferguson thought it was a key game, and after seeing Arsenal drop points to Sunderland he felt it could be a chance to put one hand on the Premier League trophy. You do get a feeling sometimes before a game that it could be a huge moment, and perhaps he felt he needed to go for it, with Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney up front, and Ryan Giggs and Nani on the wings, instead of putting three across the centre of midfield. Whatever the thinking behind it, it didn't work. They are on a poor run of form, that's for sure, but I don't think it's quite like it was in 1998, when I was part of the Arsenal team that came from 12 points back to win the title. In that season we won 13 games on the trot to win the league. I can't see the current Arsenal side doing that. They don't have that kind of mentality. I think 13 years ago the United players were looking at what we were doing and were worried. This season it is different – they will not be looking at anyone else but themselves. They have won it before and the players will be able to call on that experience in the coming weeks.

Arsène Wenger will pick the strongest side available today. Arsenal need to get some positive energy into their season, after what has been a miserable two weeks in which they have lost the Carling Cup final to Birmingham City and been put out of the Champions League by Barcelona. After all that, going out of the FA Cup to United would be another huge blow.

We must not forget this is a huge game in its own right – for a place in an FA Cup semi-final. But it could also have a big impact on the remainder of the season for both teams.

In some ways it reminds me of 1999, when United beat Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final replay thanks to Ryan Giggs' amazing goal, on their way to winning the treble. We were great rivals at the time and the title race was really tight. I honestly believe that if Dennis Bergkamp had managed to score that penalty at the end of the game, which would have won the tie, then we would have won the title that season. After we lost that game there were two or three days of disappointment, and then we rallied and said we needed to bounce back and win the league. But then things started to go against us a bit, we lost at Leeds in the penultimate game and although it came down to the last game of the season, United managed to beat Tottenham to win.

I'm sure the reverse was true at Old Trafford – when they were in trouble, like in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich – they had the memory of that FA Cup semi-final to draw on. I am a big believer in the importance of winning every game.

The two teams might not be playing for Premier League points today, but there is still an enormous amount at stake.

Five Asides

1. Redknapp need not fear Barcelona – Spurs are as good as anyone

Tottenham have done brilliantly to knock Milan out of the Champions League and it is thoroughly deserved for all the hard work the club have put in after being in the doldrums for a few years. Upstairs has sorted itself out, the manager has created a squad of attacking players who are good to watch – this does not happen overnight. The foundations were put in place and it has all come together reasonably quickly under Harry Redknapp. But it is part of a process that has taken the board years to get right. Spurs have been criticised for their defensive game on Wednesday night but when you have 180 minutes to beat the team that is top of Serie A it really doesn't matter how you do it. We already know that on their day they are capable of beating absolutely anyone, even possibly Barcelona.

2. United and Chelsea should ensure Arsenal are the odd ones out

I expect both Manchester United and Chelsea to come through their respective games with Marseilles and Copenhagen to make it three English teams in the Champions League quarter-finals. I want them all to get through, so I hope they don't draw each other in the next round. The best scenario would be for one of the three to make the final at Wembley, where they play Barcelona.

3. FA Cup final is proudest day for any footballer, regardless of club policy

The proof that teams don't place such priority on the FA Cup any more can be seen in the make-up of the four quarter-finals this weekend. The tournament is wide open this year, which is good news for supporters of those clubs still in it. The fact that the top teams rest some players has opened it up for the rest of the Premier League. I can only say that playing in the FA Cup final is one of the greatest days in the life of any footballer.

4. Turkish match-fixing looks more like good refereeing to me

I read the story about the alleged match-fixing so I checked out some footage on the internet of the recent games in Turkey. I saw a video of the 2-2 draw between Estonia and Bulgaria, and they all looked like penalties to me. One might just have been outside the penalty area but the others looked like good decisions.

5. Balotelli's grass allergy is unlucky, maybe he should take up surfing

I've heard a few excuses in my time but never anything like Mario Balotelli being allergic to grass. That's not an ideal situation for a professional footballer. It's like a surfer being allergic to salt.