Let the first and last word on the difference between Manchester United and Arsenal rest with Patrick Vieira, a totem of the days when Arsène Wenger lifted silverware. Asked, in the course of one of the weekend's most revealing interviews, to name a fantasy XI from his time in England, Vieira reeled off no fewer than five United players. Though that might be a source of some embarrassment to his current employers at Manchester City, it is a reflection of the fact that while Wenger produces some of the best talent – no outfield player ratings could touch Jack Wilshere here on Saturday – Sir Alex Ferguson simply produces the most winners.
Vieira's goalkeeping choice was David Seaman, another sure winner and one whom Wenger knows he has never adequately replaced. If the Arsenal manager had needed any evidence that Ferguson's investment in Edwin van der Sar is a significant reason why United and Arsenal – knocked out of three competitions in the space of 13 days – have been on diverging paths since 2005, it was there before his eyes on Saturday evening.
"I do not want to go into that judgement," Wenger said, but the only solace he could find was in the fact that United will be poorer without Van der Sar around next season. "He's one of the best goalkeepers in the world. If Man United have him in goal at 40 years of age, no matter who they buy next season – [even] if he's tops – they will feel the difference, because not only does [Van der Sar] have exceptional experience, he has exceptional talent."
Wenger walked away before any more "what ifs" could be put, though his introspection revealed a manager – and a club – in an understandable state of torture and self-doubt. "I question myself always, don't worry about that, if that is your worry," Wenger said, and he by no means exuded certainty that his side have the requisite steel to prevent a repeat of 1999, when the FA Cup semi-final defeat to United presaged the loss also of a battle for the title.
"We will find out if we have the mental strength," Wenger said. "We will have this kind of question in the next two or three weeks and we need to show we have an answer to it. We are used to being questioned by our environment and we have to show we are strong enough to deal with that."
This was a more desperately sobering experience than the Nou Camp; one in which Arsenal were confronted with a makeshift line-up totalling seven defenders and still could not beat them. It was an especially desperate occasion for Denilson, Abou Diaby and Robin van Persie, and though Wilshere kept climbing, however steep Arsenal's path became, there was a symbolism in Rafael and Fabio da Silva – twins whom Ferguson could have no more expected results from than tell apart – profiting from a spirit which soared way beyond their skill level.
Lee Dixon, another Arsenal winner, reflected in these pages two weeks ago on his frustration that this Arsenal, for all its lack of trophies is technically far superior to those of his day, but perhaps Vieira's observation yesterday that "there are fewer good players and more athletes" today is the most significant. United are the side in possession.
Ferguson, who might have Jonny Evans and Anderson fit to face Marseilles tomorrow, never says never where the prospect of Van der Sar reconsidering retirement in June is concerned. "He's a fantastic goalkeeper. We just wish he was 21 and not 41 but nature catches you eventually in life," Ferguson said on Saturday, neatly evading the question.
But Van der Sar, whose extraordinary display at Wigan revealed a sportsman still at his peak, will go. There is a sense at Old Trafford that it is best he quits while ahead. "I will miss football and the buzz. It has been 20 years. I have some nice things, a lovely wife and great kids," said the Dutchman, for whom the stroke suffered by his wife Annemarie has been a decisive factor. "[The decision] is a weight off my shoulders maybe, and I don't hate retirement. I am looking forward to it. I think it will be nice to finish it at my peak."
Van der Sar also reflected on the angst that comes with his profession. "Everybody doubts themselves. Every writer doubts themselves, every artist doubts himself and every football player does. That is what certain players thrive on."
Wenger insisted he can do that – shutting out the pessimism he is hearing to keep the prospect of the title alive by the time United visit the Emirates on 1 May. "If I listened to everybody then it is a miracle that we are playing for the title with 10 games to go," he said. "So we will not want to answer this question because nobody in England believed we could even fight for the top four. The fact we are in the position we are in, I think, deserves a lot of credit.
"The Man United game [in May] is only important if we win our games before that. I am convinced if that game is decisive we will have a good chance to do it at home." It seems like a fading hope.
How Gunners misfired
Fifteen days ago Arsenal had hopes of winning a quadruple. Saturday's loss left them in the running for just one trophy, after a run of one win in five matches.
* 27 Feb: Carling Cup final: Arsenal 1 Birmingham 2 Defensive mix-up gave Obafemi Martins late tap-in for winner.
* 2 Mar: FA Cup fifth-round replay: Arsenal 5 Leyton Orient 0 Through after 1-1 draw at home of League One side.
* 5 Mar: Premier League: Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0 Unable to break down resolute defence. Arshavin goal disallowed.
* 8 Mar: Champions League round of 16, second leg: Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1
Two from Messi ended European dream.
* 12 Mar: FA Cup sixth round: Man-chester United 2 Arsenal 0 Fabio and Rooney take home side to semi-finals.
* Next five fixtures
Sat West Bromwich (a)
2 Apr Blackburn (h)
10 Apr Blackpool (a)
17 Apr Liverpool (h)
20 Apr Tottenham (a)
Subs: Manchester United Valencia 6 (Fabio, h-t), Giggs 6 (Rafael, 64), Scholes (Evra, 80) Unused Kuszczak (gk), Berbatov, Obertan, King Arsenal Chamakh 5 (Denilson, 59), Rosicky (Arshavin, 72), Ramsey (Diaby, 72)
Unused Shea (gk), Squillaci, Clichy, Eboué.
Booked: Manchester United Scholes.
Man of the match Van der Sar Match rating 6/10.
Possession Man Utd 46% Arsenal 54%.
Attempts on target Man Utd 6 Arsenal 11.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside). Att 74,693.
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