Ferguson breaks his silence to put positive spin on United's troubles

Manager refuses to dwell on Liverpool defeat but accepts Arsenal are close rivals for title

It was a long hop; an easy chance for Sir Alex Ferguson to reach through the debris of a dreadful few weeks to tell his oldest combatant that the two of them are still in all this together.

Had this week's events in the Nou Camp, the Manchester United manager was asked yesterday, made him sympathetic for Arsène Wenger?

The received wisdom about the two men's rapprochement of recent years, crowned as it was by the sight of them co-hosting a Q&A session at Wembley's Great Hall a few years back, told us that the answer might be "Yes" – but that is the danger of drawing simple conclusions about the years having a mellowing effect on Ferguson. "I had sympathy for myself," he retorted. "I didn't have an easy week myself. Dearie me."

Sympathy flows through Ferguson when the situation demands it. He provided a message of commiseration yesterday through his club's Japanese language website for those caught up in the tsunami. He personally telephoned the club doctor when a cameraman collapsed at one of his press conferences a few weeks back. But sympathy for Wenger on the eve of an FA Cup sixth-round tie which could leave United floored by their first three-match losing sequence to English teams in a decade? No chance.

Wenger, remember, has been testing the elasticity of this old relationship all season. It was he who suggested in January that United had been "lucky" to make it through 21 Premier League games unbeaten and were "solid defensively more than offensively" (correct on both counts). It was also he who claimed the quality of the Old Trafford pitch contributed to Arsenal's 1-0 defeat there in December (incorrect: Arsenal were pitiful). Ferguson does not forget comments like that. But we should never forget that the Ferguson froideur tends to disappear when a team no longer poses a threat, and after six years of Wenger flattering to deceive, he has dragged himself back to that plateau again, with all the precipitation that always brings from Manchester. An FA Cup quarter-final today's match might be, but the spoils also include a huge psychological boost for a title run-in where Ferguson believes his and Wenger's are now the last two sides standing. Chelsea have imposed themselves on the race but, for a season at least, have withdrawn. Where Arsenal and United are concerned, the early years of the millennium are finally revisited.

Neither carry much momentum, of course, with the dispiriting events in Barcelona and the desultory draw with Sunderland delivering Arsenal, minus the injured Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Wojciech Szczesny, as little succour as United, who after successive defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool are facing the prospect of those first three domestic defeats in succession since Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham did for them in November and December of 2001.

You might have expected Ferguson, who believes his club's own TV station has landed him in trouble by asking him to comment on referee Martin Atkinson after the Chelsea game and then failing to edit out the offending allegation against the official, to have continued his recent sequence of dour, uncooperative press conferences yesterday. But his most positive performances have always been reserved for the dark moments, and thus it was that the United manager offered quiet positivity and an understated jocularity that we have not seen from him for months. The swipes at his inquisitors were far less bitter than usual – "You're a genius. No, I'm not going to tell you my team" – there were no mind games and no looking back. "I'm not getting into that. That's in the past," he said of last Sunday's defeat at Anfield. "I'm more interested in tomorrow." Judgment on that is expected in tonight's programme notes.

It may have some bearing on this evening's events that the indignation Ferguson harbours about officialdom is considerably more controlled than Wenger's, who used most of his own pre-match press energies tearing into Uefa. The only issue Ferguson could not hold back on was Jamie Carragher's tackle on Nani on Sunday – a "disgraceful" one. The manager's calmly graphic description of the difficulties United's medical staff had in simply stitching the gash in Nani's leg – thus limiting the risk of infection which, in former United winger Mickey Thomas' case, brought a six-month absence from the game – said everything.

"The wound was too wide," Ferguson said. "We sent him to the hospital, to see what they could do, and our own doctor and the surgeon there managed to get it stitched up, which was fantastic, the best news we could have got. The alternative would have been to wait and just let it heal but with an open wound, infection is obviously a big problem, and swelling. We're still worried about the infection and we have to monitor it every day. He has to make sure there's no moisture in it; that it dries up quickly, which gives us a better chance."

Nani will be missing this evening and may not return until the end of the month, after the international break. Ferguson certainly has some limitations to contend with, also claiming that Rio Ferdinand is out – taking his absence with a calf injury to seven weeks – and that Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-sung are not ready.

Wenger should probably view Ferguson's refusal to go overboard about Arsenal – "They're certainly closer to winning the league this season, that's without question," was about as far as he would go – as an inverted compliment and he certainly knows from experience that this calm may well precede a storm. It was the Frenchman who served a reminder that United have had their share of penalties against Arsenal – five in eight years – and in many ways the pressure on the Londoners is greater today. Missing out on three of the four trophies they covet in the space of 13 days is by far a worse fate than any damage they might heap on United. That is why we should not bet against referee Chris Foy being on the receiving end from one of these two men today. The best estimate of the effect of today's events on their relationship is summed up by the answer Ferguson gave at that Q&A when asked if they were now friends. "Until the next match," he replied, with a laugh.

The season run-in

Manchester United

Arsenal (h) Today

Marseilles (h) 15 Mar

Bolton (h) 19

West Ham (a) 2 Apr

*CL q-final, first leg 5/6

Fulham (h) 9

*CL q-final, s leg 12/13

Newcastle (a) / *FA Cup semi-final 16/17

Everton (h) 23

*CL s-final, f leg 26/27

Arsenal (a) 1 May

*CL s-final, s leg 3/4

Chelsea (h)7

Blackburn (a) / *FA Cup final 14

Blackpool (h) 22

*CL final 28

Arsenal

Man United (a) Today

West Brom (a) 19 Mar

Blackburn (h) 2 Apr

Blackpool (a) 10

Liverpool (h) / *FA Cup semi-final 16/17

Tottenham (a) 20

Bolton (a) 24

Man United (h) 1 May

Stoke (a) 7

Aston Villa (h) / *FA Cup final 14

Fulham (a) 22

*Possible

Manchester United v Arsenal: Three key confrontations for today's cup tie

John O'Shea v Andrei Arshavin

Arshavin has struggled for consistency all season but proved against Barcelona last month that he can still perform against top-class opposition. At 5ft 7in, he runs at pace with a low centre of gravity, which could trouble the taller John O'Shea. The versatile Irishman will not provide the same threat going forward that Dani Alves did to Arsenal wide man in the Champions League, but the experienced defender has been a reliable presence this season for United.

Darren Fletcher v Jack Wilshere

The last time Fletcher faced Arsenal in the FA Cup, United won 4-0 with the Scot scoring twice. Sir Alex Ferguson's side missed the 27-year-old's tenacity in last week's defeat at Liverpool and the manager will hope his compatriot's energy will revive United against an injury-plagued Arsenal midfield. Wilshere showed similar drive against Barcelona and has proved an important figure this season, especially in the absence of captain Cesc Fabregas.

Dimitar Berbatov v Johan Djourou

Despite being the Premier League's leading scorer, Berbatov has not scored in his last seven games and has never found the net against Arsenal in a United shirt. However, he remains one of the most dangerous forwards with his back to goal and his holding up of the ball helps bring others into play. Djourou is Arsenal's best defender aerially and will want to continue his fine recent form; he will need to use all his 6ft 4in frame if he is to keep the Bulgarian quiet.

Michael Butler

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