Fergie: 'Forget City, this is the real stuff'

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The Independent Online

Arsène Wenger has described Arsenal's current sequence of four Premier League games as the most significant in his 14 years at the club. For Sir Alex Ferguson, the second of those matches, at the Emirates this afternoon, is United's biggest of the season so far. Some might have assumed that the Manchester set-to last Wednesday deserved that mantle, but Ferguson, anxious that his players should not rest on purely local laurels, was able to dismiss it thus: "Wednesday was an emotional game, it was a derby game. This is the real stuff now."

No gentle down-playing, then, of the significance of a fixture today that until Roman Abramovich blew into town seven years ago was between the country's two real powers. Instead, Wenger was stating on Friday, with a touch of understatement, that these meetings are "rarely boring", while 200 miles north his old adversary was adding: "It's gonna be a helluva game, a terrific game."

What both would like to believe is that the spirit of it will be a little less sour than in this season's game at Old Trafford, which United won 2-1 on goals and lost 6-3 on yellow cards. Wenger, in one of those outbursts after a disappointing result when his underrated passion overcomes his undoubted intelligence, accused United of "anti-football"; a charge that cannot have been levelled at them with any degree of justification since the dog days of John Fitzpatrick, Jim Holton and Tommy Docherty's relegation campaign more than 35 years ago. The Arsenal manager even suffered the indignity of being sent to the stand – though nobody seemed exactly sure which part of it – for the heinous sin of kicking a water bottle.

Unlike last weekend's visit to Stoke City, he will not have to wake up on the morning of a match to the sort of headlines he hates so much, in which an opposing player promises that he and his mates will be "getting stuck into Arsenal". What Ferguson was prepared to say was: "Tackling is part of the game. Sometimes you're a bit late but the problem is the speed of the game today, players approach the ball quicker than they ever did and close down quicker, including Arsenal. And you give fouls away. That's not to say you're intentionally fouling players, you're just trying to get the ball back."

His fellow Scot Darren Fletcher will be under particularly close scrutiny by Wenger, who characterised his performance in the Old Trafford game as "a player who plays only to make repeated fouls". Today, as then, Fletcher is likely to be up against Cesc Fabregas, of whom an admiring Ferguson says: "I think he's their talisman, their main player. Their team has changed a bit and managing that change is not easy. Henry left, Pires left, Vieira left. Fabregas has been there five years now, developed through the team and become the important player for the team. So what you're seeing is a normal process of when you let good players go, it takes time to get the show back on the road."

The Arsenal roadshow is indeed up and running again, as seven wins and three draws from the past 10 League games confirm. They are unbeaten since the 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea in November, a result that both Wenger and Ferguson agree was flattering.

A similar outcome either way today would be a shock, though if Thomas Vermaelen is absent from Arsenal's defence as expected, leaving Wayne Rooney to terrorise either Sol Campbell or Mikaël Silvestre, a drab goalless draw would be more of one.

Wenger's toughest run

27 January: Aston Villa 0 Arsenal 0

A disappointing start with two points and two players lost; Thomas Vermaelen's injured leg could be a very bad blow.

Today: Arsenal v Manchester United (4pm, Sky Sports 1)

Of the four games, this one and the next are the most critical, against other serious title contenders. Two six-pointers.

7 February: Chelsea v Arsenal (4pm, Sky Sports 1)

The 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea in November left Arsenal 11 points behind and apparently out of the race. Not so.

10 February: Arsenal v Liverpool (7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)

Chance for a third win of the season over Liverpool as United and Chelsea face tricky away games.

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