Gunners lose fear factor: Fergie's just not scared of Arsenal now, especially as he has Van Persie
01:07 GMT, 3 November 2012
The clue was in the choice of words. ‘I think it will be a hard-ish game tomorrow,’ said Sir Alex Ferguson as he looked ahead to Saturday's lunchtime match with Arsenal.
Hard-ish Once upon a time the league season’s two meetings between Manchester United and Arsenal were seen as definitive, pivotal matches. They used to go some way to determining the destiny of the league championship.
At times they lit up the landscape. At others they were horrible and ugly. Now — with Arsenal suffering from Arsene Wenger’s mistakes and the rise of clubs such as Manchester City — Ferguson anticipates their arrival like he would a six-foot putt on one of his favourite Che-shire golf courses.
Hard-ish. It’s enough to make Arsenal diehards wince.
Changing relationship: Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson at loggerheads in 2004 (above) and sharing a joke earlier this year (below)
Ferguson meant no disrespect. That much is clear. In fact he did his best on Friday to talk this fixture up.
‘Every game against Arsenal is always a big one,’ he said. ‘Since I’ve come down here [to England], it’s always the most important ‘derby’ game in the sense that both teams have always been challenging for the league.
‘It won’t be different tomorrow.’ The truth is, however, that it is different now.
Arsenal still represent tough opposition, a team who, on their day, could beat United. What they are not, though, are title contenders.
They are the type of team who draw at home to Sunderland (currently 14th in the Barclays Premier League), lose at Norwich (16th) and beat 10-man QPR (20th) at home by a single goal scored in the 84th minute.
Looking good: Robin van Persie celebrates after his goal for United at Chelsea last weekend
LOCKING HORNS ONCE AGAIN
Since taking charge of Arsenal in September 1996, Arsene Wenger has faced Sir Alex
Ferguson’s United side 47 times.
United have won 21 games, Arsenal have won
15 and there have been 11 draws.
Arsenal have scored 53 times against their rivals, but United have scored 68.
United’s 8-2 win last year was Ferguson’s
biggest victory over Wenger in all competitions.
Wenger’s biggest win was a 4-0 victory in the League Cup back in 2001 at Highbury.
Wenger has won the league three times and
the FA Cup four times with Arsenal.
In the same period, Ferguson has won two
Champions League trophies, nine league titles and two FA Cups.
Kick-off: 12.45pm, Old Trafford.
TV: LIVE on Sky Sports 2 from 12pm.
Referee: Mike Dean.
They are seven points off the lead at the top end of the Premier League, a point ahead of Fulham and two behind Tottenham. They are not title contenders. To make matters worse, United now have in their team Arsenal’s best player of recent years and indeed last season’s captain Robin van Persie, a player signed in the summer after Ferguson telephoned Wenger not so much to haggle but to commiserate.
Wenger and his disciples —and there are many — must wonder how it has come to this. Ferguson used to spit out Arsenal’s name through gritted teeth. He used to talk about ‘Wenger’.
Now the United manager, knowing Arsenal look no nearer to breaking their seven-and-a-half-year run without a trophy, pays lip-service to ‘Arsene’ and his team, an entertaining and intriguing curio that he knows will not be bothering him much come May.
‘I think they have improved defensively this year, they’re a stronger physical team,’ he said. They’re stronger physically if you look at the make-up of their team now.These players they’ve brought in are much more physical than they have had in the past.’
We can only presume Ferguson was
referring to the recent past. Arsenal, after all, use to head north
with trojans like Vieira, Petit, Winterburn and Keown in their team.
fact that United have won 10 of the last 14 fixtures against Arsenal
(losing just two) tells the story of how the relationship between the
clubs has become a little lop-sided. The last time Arsenal won both
league games was in 2006-07 while United did so as recently as last
year. United beat Arsenal 8-2 in this corresponding fixture last season
and Van Persie — scorer of nine goals already this term — was still
playing for the other side.
about his former captain on Friday, Wenger did little to quell the
feeling that it could be another productive day for the Dutchman.
What a coup: Ferguson with Van Persie after United's dramatic summer capture of the Dutchman
‘My players know him as well because they have played against him in training,’ he said. ‘But in the game it’s a question of timing. How quickly will they read it as well as he reads it He’s certainly the most efficient striker (in the Premier League).
‘In Manchester United you have good players around him. His runs are fantastic, his technique is absolutely amazing, so I’m not surprised (at his success).
‘United are a lot in offensive positioning, so with his intelligent runs, of course he will take advantage of that.’
Embarrassing: Arsene Wenger suffered at Old Trafford last season as United claimed an unlikely win
Ferguson said on Friday he scouted Van Persie as a teenager at Feyenoord, on a day he was actually sent off, but it was Wenger’s stealth in the market that saw Van Persie lured to Highbury rather than any doubts about temperament.
Certainly the current United team look made for a player blessed with so much precision, imagination and instinct. Despite issues in defence, Ferguson’s team look capable of digging themselves out of the deepest of holes right now.
Last year’s drubbing at Old Trafford left Wenger ‘embarrassed’ and ‘humiliated’ though he insisted yesterday it didn’t take him long to recover.
On Saturday, he will hope his team stay in the game long enough to have a chance. If they do it could be close. Well, close-ish.