Two wounded giants, but which is less weak – Manchester United or Arsenal?

With title contenders dropping points seemingly for fun this season, two have emerged as the likely winners of this year’s Premier League. Manchester United and Arsenal are now arguably in a direct race for the championship, but recent injury woes might mean the eventual winner will, instead of being the strongest team over the closing months, be the one that is least affected by squad health.

Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are being forced to patch up their back lines with the loss of vital first-teamers, and clues of how well they do this could come with the teams’ performances this weekend.

Ferguson’s men face Bolton at home, in an intriguing tie that will see his opposite number, Owen Coyle, attempt to take advantage of the holes in the United defence. While Chris Smalling has deputised well on occasion for Rio Ferdinand, the continuing absence of the Englishman and his captain, Nemanja Vidic, means Smalling and Brown are likely to face the Trotters. Smalling’s maturity this season has defied his years, but the nature of a learning curve suggests mistakes are inevitable, and the youngster’s consistency will have a huge say on Saturday, and indeed for as long as he is to stand in as a senior centre-back.

Brown has always been a capable defender, but pales in comparison to both Ferdinand and Vidic, and while Michael Carrick is an option – despite previous failed attempts, in particular away to Fulham in December 2009 where United were defeated 3-0 – the centre of defence is a possible area for Coyle to target. Now playing a mixed passing game, Bolton still possess the ability to bully opponents in the air, and the way Brown and Smalling handle Kevin Davies could be key to the result. If Davies gets a lot of joy, then the message of how to stop United gaining their 12th Premier League title will be clear to the other managers.

Away to West Brom, Wenger has reason to be worried, especially considering the ease with which his side were opened up by the Baggies just a few months ago in a 3-2 defeat. Although Arsenal are often breathtaking upfront, where Roy Hodgson will have his work cut out, the gaping weakness in the Gunners’ team is the partnership of Sebastien Squillaci – who has played in every Arsenal league defeat thus far – and Laurent Koscielny.

With a similar story to Smalling, having been plucked from outside the French top flight, Koscielny has struggled to dominate forwards while he continues his learning at this level. He has been found out particularly in recent games by fleet-footed forwards, of whom West Brom have a handful. With uncertainty in the goalkeeping department, too, these are certainly worrying times for Arsenal.

Despite possessing a longer injury list than the Gunners, United still hold a slightly more reliable centre-back pairing, if form is anything to go by. Should Brown and Smalling successfully hold the fort in the absence of Vidic and Ferdinand over the next few weeks, their performances could decide where the Premier League trophy ends up in May.

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