The Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger is by nature a man for whom optimism comes easy – at least in his public pronouncements – but when he watched Manchester United on Tuesday night, as he surely will have done, even he must have had to fight a growing sense of gloom.
United should be coming to the Emirates on Sunday stretched and tired, just one game into a four-match, 13-day period the consequences of which will have a major effect on how their season pans out. Starting with Tuesday's game against Schalke, they play Arsenal; Schalke again in the Champions League semi-final second leg and then Chelsea at Old Trafford a week on Sunday.
At the end of an arduous season of indifferent away form it is a demanding schedule to say the least. In different circumstances, Arsenal would be encountering a United team torn between the exertions of winning the Premier League title and pushing on for the Champions League final. In different circumstances United might even be considered vulnerable. But that is not how it feels this morning.
Instead it is Arsenal, who have not played since Sunday and have had the whole week at their training ground to prepare for this coming Sunday's match, who look vulnerable. They have already slipped to third place and the match that promised, three months ago, to be the marquee fixture in the season's title race now rates as second-best to Chelsea's visit to Old Trafford one week later.
As for United they have that unmistakeable end-of-season buzz about them. It was there on Tuesday night in the running of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, who played the entire game as if it were the last five minutes of a fraught cup final. It cannot be luck that the likes of Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung and Michael Carrick are in form at the right time. Or that Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are both fit. It cannot be luck because United do this too often for it to be chance.
It was the same last year when, even though they lost their title last season to Chelsea – who came to Old Trafford between last year's two Champions League quarter-final games against Bayern Munich and won 2-1 – United won nine of their last 11 league games. This time, Sir Alex Ferguson puts his team's form down to a squad unencumbered by injuries and boosted by the return of Park, Antonio Valencia and Ferdinand. It sounds simple but if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.
Arsenal's current injury list numbers just Abou Diaby's calf strain and the long-sidelined Thomas Vermaelen and Lukasz Fabianski. By rights they should be as buoyant as United but they have left themselves with nothing to play for.
Since losing the Carling Cup final to Birmingham on 27 February, Arsenal have won one from seven league games, lost an FA Cup tie to United and exited the Champions League to Barcelona over two legs. The biggest regret of their season is not the likelihood that they will win nothing this season but they have allowed themselves to drift out of contention before United's visit on Sunday.
Today Wenger will give his first press briefing since the aftermath of that 2-1 defeat to Bolton Wanderers on Sunday. Once again, it seems inevitable that he will be asked to confront the startling realities of another barren season for the club and what he plans to do to address them. By contrast, when Ferguson sits down to speak tomorrow he will be invited to look forward at the exciting possibilities right up to 28 May.
That is the difference between these two clubs as they approach Sunday's game: one looks hopefully to the future, the other stares grimly back at the past. It is a question that will offend the competitor in Wenger but what is it that Arsenal are playing for on Sunday? The title is gone. Sure, there is prize money and an automatic Champions League place at stake for second place but that is hardly the basis for a rousing team-talk.
In their situation, disappointment heaped upon disappointment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, Arsenal have a dreadful record against United in the league. In the last nine seasons United have won eight of the 17 league games between the two clubs compared to the three won by Wenger's side.
What happens if Arsenal win on Sunday? It is not beyond the realms of possibility, although they last beat United in any competition eight games ago in the league in November 2008. A win would move them to within six points of United with three games left to play. Mathematically, as Wenger is fond of saying, it would keep them in contention but it would also remind them what might have been if they had not thrown away so many points on carelessly drawn games.
When United last came back from Germany after a Champions League semi-final in 2002 – the elimination to Bayer Leverkusen on away goals - they returned to a domestic game dominated by Arsenal, who finished as champions that season, 10 points ahead of United in third place and won the FA Cup. Meanwhile Ferguson, deposed after three straight league titles, protested that his team had been the best "since Christmas".
It was a remark born of frustration and was met with Wenger's famous riposte that "everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home", a quip that, as legend has it, Ferguson had to be reassured was meant metaphorically, not literally. Nowadays, the manager most likely to make that spurious kind of claim that belies the league table's cold, hard truth is Wenger, not Ferguson.
You could see on Tuesday night why it must be so difficult for Ferguson to contemplate walking away from this team of his. Why leave Hernandez to another manager when so much ingenuity, hard-work and sheer good judgement has gone into his scouting and acquisition? Why bequeath Rooney, still only 25, or Valencia or Park to someone else?
These are the days that Ferguson must live for: when summer is around the corner and he is rolling up at Arsenal with a United team champing at the bit as the big games stack up ahead of them. So much better to have it all to play for, whatever the demands, than simply providing the opposition.
Gunners firing blanks
Arsenal have won just one of their last 11 games against Manchester United, losing the last four. Arsène Wenger's side have also scored just three times in their last seven meetings:
Arsenal 2-2 Man Utd, Prem, 3 Nov 2007
Man Utd 4-0 Arsenal, FA Cup, 16 Feb 08
Man Utd 2-1 Arsenal, Prem, 13 Apr 08
Arsenal 2-1 Man Utd, Prem, 8 Nov 08
Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal, Ch Lg, 29 Apr 09
Arsenal 1-3 Man Utd, Ch Lg, 5 May 09
Man Utd 0-0 Arsenal, Prem, 16 May 09
Man Utd 2-1 Arsenal, Prem, 29 Aug 09
Arsenal 1-3 Man Utd, Prem, 31 Jan 10
Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal, Prem, 13 Dec 10
Man Utd 2-0 Arsenal, FA Cup, 12 Mar 11
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