Arsène Wenger believes Michael Carrick should pip Robin van Persie to the Player of the Year award, as he prepares to welcome back the latter to Arsenal for the first time as a Manchester United champion. The Arsenal manager likened the Van Persie move of last summer to a childless yet broody 39-year-old woman, chasing what she wanted before it was too late and it is fair to say that the striker has delivered in his debut season at Old Trafford.

Van Persie's 24 league goals, after his £24m transfer from Arsenal, have been fundamental to United's 20th championship, which will be marked at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday when the home team form a pre-match guard of honour. Van Persie could scarcely have scripted his return better, even if the crowd are sure to be hostile towards him. For Wenger, though, it is the other United player on the PFA's shortlist that has been the star this season.

"I would choose Carrick," Wenger said. "He is a quality passer. He could play for Barcelona, he would be perfectly suited to their game. He has a good vision and is an intelligent player, and it is for what he has achieved in his whole career as well. It is this year or never for him, just because he is 31 and after, they go down.

"You have a few other choices. Robin stayed for a while without scoring and the PFA vote happened during that period so that could go against him. You had [Luis] Suárez but he has bitten into his reward. You have Gareth Bale. I think Carrick is an underrated player in England and sometimes not only should the goalscorer be rewarded but the real players at the heart of the game."

Van Persie was, inevitably, central to the pre-match discussion and Wenger was forced to revisit the pain of his sale to United, which the 29-year-old, who had one year remaining on his Arsenal contract, drove himself. It was a question of ambition rather than money, Wenger said, although he added that United's wage offer to Van Persie, which was believed to be upwards of £200,000-a-week, was not something that Arsenal could have competed with, "because it is at a scale that is massive". Wenger also said that of all the departures from Arsenal, Van Persie's had saddened him the most.

"We had a frank exchange of views, Robin is an honest guy," Wenger said. "He had arrived at 29 and thought 'Can we win the championship here or do I have more chances to win it somewhere else?' There's a kind of timescale, like for a woman who has no baby at 39. She starts to think, 'I have not much time left now'.

"It is difficult when the player does not want to be here … you can force him to be here and know that at the end of the season, the club does not get anything, and know that he might not contribute as well. So you are twice a loser."

Wenger is determined to achieve "something special on Sunday," which would fire the club's hopes of a top-four finish and show that they have improved since the demoralising 2-1 defeat at United in November. With Olivier Giroud suspended, Wenger's must chose whether to start Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott or Gervinho up front.