Ferguson frustrated by a transfer of power

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Hard cop. Soft cop. It is remarkable how Sir Alex Ferguson can immerse himself in both roles like a veteran thespian, depending on how the mood takes him.

Hard cop. Soft cop. It is remarkable how Sir Alex Ferguson can immerse himself in both roles like a veteran thespian, depending on how the mood takes him. Seven days ago, Arsenal were almost fugitives from justice, the principal culprits in last year's Old Trafford brouhaha, having "got away with murder". It was one of those periodic fits of Fergie pique, one of those occasions when he reverts to Govan shipyard rousing of the brothers and conveniently ignores the fact that he is guv'nor of the nation's most celebrated football team.

This week, he has come over eulogistic, the thoroughly agreeable Alex, truncheon holstered. "They are a great side, a marvellous side," he oozed appreciatively after training on Friday, like a visitor to the National Gallery struck by the power of a new artist's exhibition. When it is suggested that the plaudits regarding Arsène Wenger's team been overstated, he protests: "No. They [the press] are quite right to acclaim them... they [Arsenal] are quite right to be proud of their record last year."

If the last few days have been a softening up exercise, in the expectation that Arsenal would cough to their past sins and choke under pressure, it has probably been futile. All it has actually achieved has been to permit Wenger the occupation of the moral summit (which, to Ferguson's chagrin, also reflects the visitors' position in the Premiership) ahead of this afternoon's meeting, predicted by many to become a sporting version of Apocalypse Now!with the Scot having sprayed the area with napalm.

The urbane Frenchman has merely added to Ferguson's discomfort, exhorting to his rival to "calm down". It was reminiscent not so much of Harry Enfield's Scousers as Michael Winner's car insurance advert. The one where he tells an excited woman: "Now calm down, dear. It's only a commercial."

As a prelude to today's contest Ferguson's initial observations - including the line "what the Arsenal players did was the worst thing I have seen in sport" - was an advertisement that was as irrelevant as it will probably prove unproductive.

The principally photographed offender in last season's events, Martin Keown has departed; so, too, Ray Parlour. The images of Arsenal players hounding Ruud van Nistelrooy at the conclusion of the match, which was drawn 1-1 after the dismissal of Patrick Vieira and United's Dutch striker had struck the bar with a late penalty, were unpalatable, but scarcely more distasteful than those of Ferguson's players embarking on that mob haranguing of referee Andy D'Urso a few years ago. And no one was hurt; unlike Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland after Roy Keane's premeditated assault.

Could it be that the irascible Ferguson has been reading the "Roons", and has come to the conclusion that one extravagantly-purchased striker, whatever Wayne Rooney's undoubted virtues, does not a championship team make. Not when he surveys a midfield that is in parts ageing and in parts less than visionary and a rearguard that, even with the return of Rio Ferdinand, appears vulnerable. Ferguson quotes statistics, claiming that "they show we have made more chances than anyone else in the League, more shots at goal than any other team, so there is something right."

In doing so, the Scot blithely ignores the most pertinent Premiership figures: Arsenal, goals scored 29, nearly as many as the aggregate of the three teams below them: Chelsea, Everton and Bolton. Manchester United, goals scored nine. And this from a team once celebrated for their liberal goalscoring prowess.

But what, you suspect, truly irks Ferguson is that his rivals have usurped his team as the "entertainers". The Manchester United manager has never desired to be loved during his inspirational 18-year tenure. What he craved was admiration, however grudging, for his team. For the moment, even that sentiment eludes him. From Ferguson's perspective, if there is one thing worse than contempt for his side, it is indifference.

When he is asked about the pressure on Arsenal to maintain their unbeaten run, Ferguson turns the question on its head by maintaining: "I think we still are the team everybody wants to beat." He adds: "Every player in the country would probably like to come to us, and it has always been the case." There is some truth here, but it would be surprising if he is not privately troubled by what appears a significant transfer of power towards north London - a factor which may offer an explanation as to why an unnerved Ferguson initially directed flak at the Gunners, before reverting to flattery.

A victory for the hosts today could alter, at least temporarily, all such perceptions - and also remove the spectre of Martin O'Neill occupying that sacred throne perhaps more prematurely than most may have imagined.

However, Arsenal's hesitance in Europe cannot diminish their pre-eminence in the Premiership. Gordon Strachan, a former United player, opined in last Sunday night's watchable Match Of The Day 2, under the command of the droll Adrian Chiles, that Arsenal's first half against Aston Villa last week was the best 45 minutes he has seen. Ever. No caveats.

It was a verdict that contrasted with that of Peter Schmeichel on Match Of The Day the previous night. Despite his strong allegiance to the club where he was once so revered, the Dane questioned the authenticity of some of Ferguson's acquisitions, suggesting that they may not be "true Manchester United players".

The difference between the clubs is that while the Old Trafford orchard that was once so bountiful fails to produce high quality home-grown fruits consistently, Wenger successfully scrumps from his continental neighbours' gardens. Last Saturday, Mathieu Flamini, a free transfer from Marseilles, emerged for the injured Vieira and helped to create Arsenal's third goal. The 20-year-old Frenchman was immediately attuned to the fluid Arsenal approach. The other members of the midfield quartet that finished against Villa were Jermaine Pennant, aged 21; Francesc Fabregas, 17, and Robin van Persie, 21. Within the ranks of the defence and forwards, the story is much the same. Precocious youth dominates. Whatever today's outcome, Wenger looks destined to have the edge, when it comes to the harvesting of young talent.

Can it really be all over before we turn our clocks back? You suspect that Ferguson could wish he could rewind his timepiece, to a time when his club's supremacy was threatened only rarely, and Arsenal were occasional intruders on that territory.

If he is fearful that his team may not only not finish runners-up but might not even be certain to qualify for Europe next season, his concern should be shared by the rest of us. From a triumvirate, we are confronted already with the prospect of runaway champions.

Even the greatest steeplechaser of them all, Arkle, had tough races, but they had to handicap him harshly to do it. That may be the only solution here.