Football: Overmars an overall master

Arsenal v Manchester United: Managers search for the psychological edge before battle is rejoined
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The Independent Online
FRIDAY LUNCHTIME at Arsenal's training base near St Albans and the talk is of planes, and hopes and strains. Marc Overmars and Tony Adams are said to be ready to return from the latter, France 98's Golden Boot winner Davor Suker is scheduled to return from Croatia's game against Malta on Saturday night via the former, a private aircraft owned by Arsenal's major shareholder Danny Fiszman, which has already transported Patrick Vieira back from Belfast immediately after France's midweek game against Northern Ireland.

It is all more than coincidence. Names like Overmars and Adams are not ones that the treble-winners would have wanted to consider in their plans for today's match. If it hadn't been United at Highbury the pair wouldn't have appeared in the Arsene Wenger pre-match briefing like warning shots of Arsenal's intent.

So evenly matched have been the clubs since Wenger assumed the managership, that separating his team and Manchester United would require highly sensitive laboratory apparatus. In the circumstances, both managers will use any device to instil apprehension into the opposition. Even though the season is only three games old, the psychological points will be significant.

The chances are that Adams, who underwent a double hernia operation only a month ago, may not be risked and Overmars could start on the bench. But their mere presence in United's thoughts is all part of the battle of wits between the Premiership's big battalions as they meet today. If there is one player Wenger knows will put the fear of God into the Red Devils, it is the diminutive Dutchman, who only returned to full training from a stomach muscle strain this week. Alex Ferguson's men will not need reminding of that clinically despatched goal which in effect wrested the 1997-98 championship from them and his ability to cause disarray in their ranks.

Against Harry Kewell of Leeds last Saturday, a defence deprived of Gary Neville and Ronny Johnsen betrayed itself as susceptible when attacked by a gifted left-sided player. There will be no respite for them today.

As Wenger explains, with that chilling smile of his: "If I were a right back, I'd prefer to know that he's injured. I'd sleep better. Whether it's Manchester United or any other team in the world it would be the same."

Still only 26, Overmars has already gorged himself on the game's prizes in a distinguished career. Among them are 50 caps for his country (it was six years ago that he played his part in Graham Taylor's demise, winning the penalty at Wembley in the World Cup qualifier that allowed Holland to leave with a 2-2 draw), a European Cup medal with Ajax and a championship and FA Cup medals with Arsenal, for whom he signed in 1997. And that despite a serious knee injury which made many question Wenger's decision to purchase the midfielder. Yet he insists: "I still think I can play better and I hope to show it this year."

Maybe it has much to do with his apparent insouciance, as he demonstrates a disinclination for ostentatious goal celebration. Though many of Arsenal's faithful are still irked by the "failure" of last season, the Dutchman takes it in that scampering, yet devastating, stride of his. "Last season we lost 25 points in the first 17 matches, but like the year before we kept on going, and we were so confident. We felt very strong," he recalls, before adding with a shrug: "Sometimes you lose. We went out of the FA Cup, too, but I enjoyed it because it was a great match." And their most avowed rivals claiming the treble? "I'm happy Manchester United won."

It also explains why he will not regard the outcome of today's meeting as the definitive verdict on the clubs' relative claims to the title. "It's so early in the season; nothing will become clear for at least 10, 15 games," he says. "And you don't win the title just by beating sides like Manchester United and Liverpool. We had a good record against all the top teams last year, but we were second."

His grave demeanour gives him the appearance of being a regular sourpuss, who is perhaps motivated purely by pecuniary attractions, but that is far from the truth. Over-endowed with talent, never overawed, and most significantly from an Arsenal point of view, over here, while others contest contracts or hint at mutiny, Overmars quietly gets on with his life and, certainly in his relationship with the media, the genial and thoughtful Dutchman is a fine ambassador for his club.

He has performed for only half an hour in the Premiership this season, against Leicester in the first game of the season, but that inflamed his injury, and Wenger is reluctant to take any unnecessary chances with him, or indeed with Adams.

"It is very early in the season, which is why I must not be crazy and not take any gambles. That is to say, I must not take two big gambles," he says. "Marc is a hugely important player to us. He's one of the type of player that's very difficult to find today. A good runner off the ball, he can finish, he can cross, he can come in and score, and is hugely important to the balance of our team. He has good communication with Kanu already; they share something off the pitch and on it. But I don't think he can take a game now for 90 minutes, so he is likely to be on the bench."

Quality on the bench, rather than in the starting line-up could decide the distribution of trophies this season. How Kanu might have shifted the balance of power if Overmars' former Ajax team-mate had arrived a few months earlier. The signing of Suker, who will return from the Croatia game by noon today, and could make his first appearance, and Thierry Henry, have granted Wenger more diverse attacking options - despite the loss of Nicolas Anelka.

"Now we've got quite a lot of strikers," says Overmars. "There is a big difference if you look at the bench. When Manchester United's substitutes were warming up last season they had quite a lot of quality strikers. Yet, if we had one or two strikers out injured we had major problems."

Overmars' restoration alongside Dennis Bergkamp would set up an intriguing all-Dutch confrontation with the visitors' Jaap Stam and Raimond van der Gouw, the understudy for the goalkeeper Mark Bosnich.

Even in a season of such distinction Stam was always vulnerable to Bergkamp's exhilarating and visionary play, although Overmars remains a great admirer "The last few times we did quite well against Jaap," he says. "Everybody knows the start he had. It took time to settle. But he has done well. He is a rock in defence, and I think he will become even more valuable to them."

While success in the Champions' League appears the pinnacle of Arsenal's ambitions, it is the domestic championship and such contests as today's which truly bring a quiver of anticipation to the player. "Sunday is about the two biggest clubs," Overmars says. "We were so close last season and the year before, but don't ask me to compare it with, say, the semi-final of the Champions' League. That is a different thing."

Yet, you still get the impression that another domestic championship means rather more to him than a successful sortie in Europe. "The Champions' League is just the start of a European league," he says. "It is not the same any more. The clubs finishing second or third have got a chance, when it used to be number one. Why should you have the honour of playing in the Champions' League if you come third?" Should Arsenal emerge from the group stage - and this season, they surely have sufficient ammunition to do so - it will be instructive to discover whether he reviews his opinion. Manchester United had no difficulty at all in overcoming that minor technical objection last season. You imagine that neither would Arsenal and Overmars.