For a sense of what this match means to both clubs, read Football’s Great Feud by Tim Adams in The Guardian.
What is usually a high intensity, high drama fixture, come Sunday, will probably end up as an exhibition of high quality football. In the past, passions have brimmed as players have pushed and shoved each other, elbows have met faces, and boot-spikes have been slammed on shins and knees. Several cards, both Red and Yellow have been shown and referee’s have had a hard time separating groups of players scuffling in the middle of the pitch, both during and after the game. Tunnel fights were commonplace, but that was when the teams, Manchester United (The Red Devils) and Arsenal (The Gunners), were let by two of the most charismatic midfielders to ever take field – Roy Keane and Patrick Viera.
Keano has since left United for Celtic FC, after being deeply critical of his players for lacking the fighting spirit and the passion in his absence, and Viera has chosen a relatively quiet role in the star studded Italian club, Juventus. With the Premiership title seemingly firmly in Chelsea’s hands, the ManU vs Arsenal rivalry seemed to have lost its sting. I think that’ll change tomorrow:
For most of the season, Chelsea have been boring but professional, choosing to curb their attacking instincts for quiet and professional finish. Every time they go on to the field, Jose Mourinho seems to have plan and the players seem to be under strict instructions to execute. Joe Cole, a central midfielder, was even hauled up for ‘showboating’.
However, as the season has progressed, Manchester United have picked themselves up and the team that once seemed, apart from Park Ji Sun, Alan Smith and especially Cristiano Ronaldo, reticent to go at the ball and even move forward with the ball, is now running at defenders and creating opportunities. They’re just seven points shy of Chelsea, and within touching distance of the title if Chelsea slip up. With both Louis Saha and Van Nistelrooy (who’s taken over the Super Sub mantle, for the time being, from Diego Forlan) is prime form, United seem to be charging forward with a vengance. After a lack-lustre start to the season, but biggest club on the planet has a point to prove. Of all the players, Cristiano Ronaldo has never been found wanting in the entire season, while others have exhibited a lack of will, and often I’ve found players more keen to get rid of the ball than go for goal. That seems to have now changed.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have been playing sublime, poetic football. If there was any doubt about Thierry Henry (and I say this a little grudingly, as a ManU fan) being the most skilful striker in the world, this season has put that to rest. Henry comes up with the most audacious goals, and executes them with a finesse that seems almost fictional. To use a cricket analagy, watching Henry is like watching Brian Lara in full flow, where the grace with which he plays makes even Tendulkar seem second best. Goalkeepers across the globe must be trembling at the sight of Henry approaching the six-yard box. Arsenal’s passing has been brilliant and few seem to have answer to them as they approach the goal almost without challenge. On current form, what with Flamini and Reyes and Van Persie in fiery touch and new boy Adebayor supplying some magical passes, Arsenal seem almost as unstoppable as they did 18 months ago, when Manchester United put an end to their 49 match winning streak.
But that was a different team that played a different game. Arsenal looked brittle when things got physical, and pushed and tackled at Old Trafford, they lost their rhythm and the match. It broke them, and the team that seemed invincible until then, lost the title to Chelsea.
“For us [that defeat] was painful because it interrupted a [series] which was exceptional and will remain certainly for a long, long, time,” said Wenger at Friday�s pre-match press conference. �But now it is a different team.”
This time around, with no Keane vs. Viera, and no Alan Smith in ManU, it’s probably going to be a exhibition in footballing skills. Based on skill, I’d say that Arsenal are favourites. But skill is half the battle, and there’s more fight in ManU than half the Arsenal team.
In the past, Sir Alex Ferguson has provoked Arsene Wenger who, eventually cowing down, even said – He [Ferguson] doesn’t interest me and doesn’t matter to me at all! I will never answer to any provocation from him any more! This time, though, both seem to be playing down the rivalry.
“We are in the situation where we cannot drop one point – even one point at Old Trafford will not a positive result for us.” – Arsene Wenger
“We know how to play against Arsenal, our results have been good against them in our last few meetings. We have some good threats in our team and we will be concentrating on winning the match. That�s what you need to do.” – Sir Alex Ferguson
Of the four top teams in the English Premiership, Manchester United seem to have the toughest set of matches. Sometimes this brings out the best in men, and that’s what I’m hoping for. But I can’t help but feel that the Premiership will depend more on Chelsea not dropping points than Manchester United getting them. The Arsenal game is crucial for United, because losing this one might snowball, and threaten their No.2 position against Liverpool. With seasoned defenders – Wes Brown, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole returning to their respective teams, this clash is also going to pip youth against experience. I also expect the Cristiano Ronaldo vs Ashley Cole battle to be revived.
For Arsenal, the young gunners are likely to face the toughest test of their career as some of them have never played at Old Trafford, the Theater of Dreams.