• Van Persie return unlikely to prevent tribute to champions
• Arsenal's players worried about reaction of their fans
Arsenal anticipate providing Manchester United's newly crowned Premier League champions with a guard of honour when they visit the Emirates Stadium on Sunday despite the tension sure to be whipped up by Robin van Persie's first return to the London club.
Van Persie, Arsenal's captain the previous campaign, completed a controversial £24m move to Old Trafford last summer having questioned his former club's ambitions. The centre-forward registered a hat-trick against Aston Villa on Monday, swelling his goal tally for the season to 28, as United secured their 20th domestic title. The Dutchman's defection provoked an angry reaction among Arsenal fans and that antipathy will resurface this weekend, a reality that had cast doubt over a pre-match ritual that has become commonplace in recent seasons.
There were even some reservations within the Gunners' squad over whether they should applaud their visitors given the supporters' strength of feeling on the issue. Yet, while discussions technically continue at Arsenal, the club expect to proceed with the plans to mark United's achievement, just as Sir Alex Ferguson's players had back in 1991 at Highbury and, indeed, for Chelsea at Old Trafford in 2005.
Arsenal go into Sunday's match in third place but a daunting 21 points behind United, and with their France international forward Olivier Giroud unavailable after the Football Association rejected his appeal against the red card received at Fulham last Saturday. The forward was dismissed by the referee Andre Marriner in the last minute of the 1-0 win at Craven Cottage for jumping into a challenge with Stanislav Manolev.
"Following a regulatory commission hearing today, Arsenal's Olivier Giroud has had his claim for wrongful dismissal rejected," confirmed the FA in a statement. "The player's three-match suspension will therefore commence with immediate effect." The 17-goal striker will also miss the games against Queens Park Rangers and Wigan, and is likely to be replaced by Lukas Podolski who has found himself on the bench in recent weeks. Theo Walcott, the club's leading scorer with 18 this season, could also be employed in a central role. Jack Wilshere, who played 19 minutes as a substitute at Fulham, may also start.
Arsène Wenger's side are just a point ahead of Chelsea, and two above Tottenham Hotspur, with both their London rivals boasting a game in hand meaning Arsenal can ill afford to slip up even against the champions. Indeed, the England midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has looked even further ahead and stressed victory in this fixture might even generate momentum going into next season's campaign.
"The win over Bayern Munich [last month] wasn't enough to get us to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals, but it was still a massive boost for us as a side," he said. "We are still feeding off the momentum of that and a win over United can have the same effect.
"Obviously it is a massive game for us with a Champions League place at stake, but it is also massive for next season with the confidence we can get from winning."