Deadly rivalry nears its defining moment

Arsÿne Wenger and Alex Ferguson go into their latest bout with the Arsenal manager capable of delivering a killer blow

The big match - one of the biggest in the history of English football - could also be the big death, the end of a legend, the breaking of an overpowering sense of bullying omnipotence.

The big match - one of the biggest in the history of English football - could also be the big death, the end of a legend, the breaking of an overpowering sense of bullying omnipotence.

It could be the football death of Sir Alex Ferguson - the moment Arsène Wenger, finally, irrevocably, stepped beyond his giant shadow.

That, we are being told, is the prize being presented to an Arsenal team which has apparently forgotten how to lose on their adopted native soil. Beat Ferguson now, goes the thinking, and he will have most of a season to stew in the acid juice of failure - a trial of the spirit from which he might just never recover.

For eight years it has been a rivalry conducted with something that could at best be described as semi-polite loathing, at least in public. Now we have the moment of ultimate escalation. Now we have Wenger going for the kill tomorrow at Old Trafford.

"Whatever the words for public consumption," said an Arsenal insider yesterday, "there is no doubt what this match means to Arsène. After all these years, and some of them have been very bitter indeed, he believes he finally has Ferguson where he wants him. He wants to put him away, show that he is a spent force." Wenger's strong conviction is that he has Ferguson in the corner of the bullring, bloodied and gasping for survival. That is the reality the Svengali of Highbury is desperate to inflict as Arsenal go for their 50th unbeaten performance and the chance to take a 14-point lead over United.

Such a result, Wenger knows, would constitute more than a spectacular advantage over Ferguson in the Premiership race. It would be an evisceration, a savage statement about the new order of English football.

It might also assign the once all-conquering Ferguson to football history because in every life, however forceful, however fulfilled, there is a moment when a harsh discovery is made. It is that old powers have dwindled, that the force you had yesterday may have gone forever.

Ferguson's ultimate power has never been his tactical brilliance, his ability to find diamonds in the rough, as Wenger has done so sublimely, and relentlessly, and make them shine with a stunning brilliance, but his ferocious capacity to make players play, to dig down into their natures and make them deliver the best of themselves.

Busby had it. So did Clough, Shankly and Stein. All the great managers had it and no one more so than Ferguson.

But for him the flow of that talent has never been so intermittent as in the last few weeks. Nothing has dislodged the sense that he is searching for something vital that has been mislaid, that old knack of creating the passion and the hunger which produces the great performances. The elegant, composed return of the vitally missed Rio Ferdinand hasn't done it; nor has the volcanic arrival of Wayne Rooney and the new stature of Portugal's European Championship hero Ronaldo.

The other day Ferguson tried something utterly different. He even indulged in a little self-flagellation. He said that maybe his tinkering had been the problem, perhaps he had made too many speculative lunges when pinning up his team sheet. Maybe, the implication was, he might just wake up in the morning, pick his strongest team and watch a new charge of electricity surge through his team. It was an engaging thought, but of course football doesn't quite work like that.

Football confidence and success is organic. It grows naturally in the right environment. For so many years Ferguson created the perfect competitive atmosphere at Old Trafford, and there was never much doubt how he preserved it for so long and with such crushing results. It was with a consistency of belief. He had a certain way of playing and thinking and it was all of a powerful piece.

Now after the dislocation of certainty that came with his premature retirement decision, the bruising horse war with John Magnier and J P McManus and the takeover incursions of the dreaded American tycoon Malcolm Glazer, the aura of the United manager is inevitably diminished.

He is no longer a force of football nature. He is another speculator in a game that does not forgive indecision.

Once, in the early stages of their vendetta after a Ferguson broadside on the superiority of his reigning champions, Wenger smiled slyly and said: "Everyone thinks their wife is the prettiest." He said it in the fashion of a wise man who had invested in the beauty of outstanding youth.

He has reached the point where he is sure it is he and not his Scottish rival who has the team that turns every head. Tomorrow he wants more than a performance of competence. He wants a tour de force of quicksilver movement from defence to attack. He wants Thierry Henry finally to debunk the Old Trafford conviction that for all his sleek brilliance, when it really matters he is still just a rich man's show-pony. He wants Patrick Vieira, coming back from injury, to conjure all his old authority and to expose, once and for all, the fact that his only rival as English football's most influential midfielder, Roy Keane, is now operating mostly from memory.

Beneath the urbane front, Wenger has the competitive instincts of a back-alley fighter, and he does not need telling that even with his back to the wall, Ferguson can still call on the mightier deeds since their rivalry began to burn hot in the late Nineties. Wenger hates the fact that five years on, his team have still to rival United's Champions' League success in Barcelona's Nou Camp, but on English soil he is convinced he has the chance to deliver the killing sword stroke.

He believes that a stylish Arsenal victory in the home of United will leave Ferguson's world, which has been fraying so perceptibly for several years now, in ruins.

Officially, the Arsenal manager takes the role of statesman as Ferguson goes back to the old - and some say utterly desperate - policy of screaming his belief that United are victims of one conspiracy after another. Just a few days after Ferguson's resurrection of last season's scabrous scenes at Old Trafford, when many agreed that Arsenal had "got away with murder" with the light suspensions and fines that followed their ugly mobbing of Ruud van Nistelrooy, the Arsenal manager was pleading for restraint.

He said: "As managers we have a responsibility to prepare the game in the way it should be. That means a football game, not a game with resentment and unneeded aggression. This is the most important thing and both managers have responsibility." If that is a call for restraint in the more physical aspects of the game Arsenal have been playing so beautifully, if it is some idea that Ferguson, in his current raw state, might neglect to let slip his dogs of war, it has the credence of a Saturday night call for temperance in the Glasgow pub the United manager once ran.

Ferguson's friend and admirer, Joe Jordan, who once led United so fiercely from the front, certainly refuses to believe that all is lost.

"Maybe I'm letting my heart talk a little bit," said Jordan yesterday, "but I do have this instinct that United will be able to get themselves up for this huge match. I know Alex will lay it on the line. I know this will be a time when he says his team must make a statement about themselves."

Some bookmakers support, at least to a small degree, Jordan's act of faith. Last night you could get Arsenal to win at 6-4, slightly better odds than United's 11-8. Others, and no doubt Wenger would include himself in their number, will see that as an investment in yesterday rather than tomorrow. They see Ferguson's chances of rekindling the old fire at longer odds, and ask where is his midfield, where is his cutting edge?

Yesterday Ferguson was predictably defiant and there was even a hint of some old mischief. He felt that he had the squad to beat Arsenal and that if Wenger was calling for a sense of managerial responsibility, well, he invited any comparison of disciplinary records. He was happy that Van Nistelrooy and Rooney had the ability to strike crushing blows, and he suggested that Wenger would be happy to share the points.

That was not the private word from Highbury. There, the belief is strong that it is time for a touch of football regicide. Time to tear off the clothes of the former King of English football, the greatest manager of his age.

There is maybe just one certainty. It is that if Ferguson is to face the coldest reality of his football life, he will not go to it quietly. Maybe Arsenal are at last equipped to do him down. But they will need strong stomachs for the job and perhaps, there is a hunch here, even for the avoidance of a narrow, dream-shattering defeat.

Sir Alex Ferguson life and times

Born Govan, Scotland, 31 December 1941

Background Father Alex Snr worked in shipbuilding, then as a timekeeper at Fairfields shipyard. Mother Elizabeth was a housewife. He has a brother, Martin, who scouts for United.

Supported as a boy Rangers.

Family Married Cathy Holding in 1966. Three sons, Mark (36), twins Darren and Jason (32).

Education Left school at 16.

Work At 22 became a qualified toolmaker. Publican of Fergie's and Shaw's (1975).

Player Aggressive centre-forward.

Religion Raised a Protestant.

Hobbies Owns racehorses. Enjoys wine, food and music.

On Wenger...

He has come from Japan and now he is telling us how to organise our football. He should keep his mouth shut.

April 1997

I don't think his carping has made a good impression on the other managers. He seems to pull down the shutters when you meet him and never has a drink with you after the game.

July 2000

Arsène doesn't know me well enough and I don't know him well enough to judge him.

March 2002

Intelligence! They say he is an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages! I've got a15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.

February 2003

I understand Arsène Wenger defends his players. But when your players have had 49 red cards under you and have been involved in lots of elbowing incidents, you have to look at yourselves.

April 2003

When you've been in this job as long as I have, you thrive on the challenge Arsène provides.

June 2003

Arsene Wenger life and times

Born Strasbourg, France

22 October 1949.

Background Father Alphonse was a Second World War veteran forced to fight for Germany, ran a café with his wife Louise. Has a brother, Guy.

Supported as a boy Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Family Partner: Annie Brosterhous, and a daughter, Leah (6).

Education Economics degree, Strasbourg University, 1974.

Career before football Semi-pro at university. Strasbourg youth coach 1981.

Player Sweeper/defender.

Religion Raised a Catholic.

Hobbies Football only.

On Ferguson...

The passion is there at United because of Ferguson. It won't be the same without him.

February 2000

Alex is not stupid enough, and neither am I, to think it's what we do during the match that really matters.

October 2000

It is remarkable he has survived for so long at the very top.

October 2000

There is a mutual respect for each other because we both try our best at all times.

October 2000

It can be funny when we meet at an airport occasionally and afterwards people come up and say, 'Oh, you don't hit each other.'

November 2001

Ferguson's only weakness is that he thinks he doesn't have one.

March 2002

Maybe next time I see him I'll buy him a bottle of whisky.

March 2002

Much as I respect Sir Alex Ferguson, I ignore him. At the moment I am sleeping very well.

April 2002

He's got a good sense of humour, you can't deny that.

October 2004

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