Their bonhomie at the top table of a League Managers' Association dinner a few months back suggested that they are growing on each other and Sir Alex Ferguson provided more evidence of his changing relationship with Arsène Wenger yesterday when he insisted that the vitriol directed at him by United fans must stop.
Ferguson receives abuse back with interest from Arsenal supporters, so much so that three extra stewards have been added in the row behind the visitors' dugout at the Emirates Stadium for when the teams meet this lunchtime to prevent a repeat of the taunts he got in last season's 2-2 draw. The United manager believes the stadium design is at fault – "The fans are right behind you, almost in the dugout," he said yesterday – but abhors the abuse, including use of the word "paedophile", which Wenger gets. "I think the police should be doing more," he said. "Manchester United and its supporters should know very well the chants that have been levelled at us over the years [ie "Munich"] and understand the sensitivity. I don't agree with it at all and hopefully our fans appreciate it comes to me, too."
It is a point which stands for any recipient but by reinforcing it Ferguson illustrated his rapprochement with an individual he has come to view as a point of constancy in changing managerial times. He also refused resolutely to indulge in some of the characteristic needling he is adept at before game like today's, though a fear of being forced to eat his words might have had something to do with that.
Ferguson's response to suggestions that Arsenal are currently fallible and lack enforcers of the Patrick Viera or Tony Adams ilk was prickly and he countered that his club have moved in the same direction since the days of Bryan Robson and Roy Keane. "We've got more of a football-playing team than we had 10 years ago. It changes," he said.
But while the direct second-half challenges posed by Everton and Hull in the past two weeks have troubled United, it cannot be said that they look as brittle in central midfield as Arsenal and Ferguson certainly does not go as far as to support the trenchant criticism of Stoke's physical approach which Wenger levelled this week. "I saw highlights of the [Stoke v Arsenal] game," he said. "But when you play Stoke City, you know that you are going to be up against a different way of playing. It's not a dirty way of playing. It's a very committed, honest way of playing. Tony [Pulis, the Stoke manager] knows the strengths of his team and he has never changed from that. You get a corner-kick against you and you know that you need to get the tin helmets on because players are going to have to head it. You just have to accept and get on with it."
The player Ferguson scoured Europe for to provide United with their own defensive midfield muscle now finds himself searching the world for a solution to his tendinitis. Owen Hargreaves, whose sole league start this season was at Chelsea, is currently in Colorado for a meeting with the knee specialist Dr Richard Steadman after consultations in Sweden and London over the past 10 days appear to have drawn a blank. "We are trying to get to the root of it," said Ferguson, for whom Wes Brown [ankle] and Darren Fletcher [knee] will also be missing today. Ferguson believes Paul Scholes could be back for the World Club Championships in Japan next month.
Ferguson's only comments on the improper conduct charge laid by the Football Association for his remonstrations with referee Mike Dean after last Saturday's game with Hull was that, "it's the FA and they have probably been dying to send me a wee letter." He has much more to think about, with the potential for an eight-point gap behind leaders Chelsea if Arsenal prevail today. Would a United win put Arsenal out of the title race? "Crikey me, it's only November," he said. "We have points to make up on Liverpool and Chelsea, so there's nobody here thinking about what's important for Arsenal." The new entente cordiale has its limits.
Starstruck players head queue to shake the Hand of God
Rio Ferdinand is supposed to be the one who spends Friday lunchtimes having football shirts thrust at him by adoring fans on the driveway up to Carrington. But he was treasuring one of his own yesterday as Diego Maradona, Argentina's new manager, visited Liverpool and Manchester United to see his new charges and found players queuing up to witness his presence.
Maradona handed Ferdinand a signed shirt as a 30th birthday present, when calling in with general manager Carlos Bilardo to see Carlos Tevez in the Carrington canteen. "We were like schoolkids around a star coming to school," said Ferdinand. "In my eyes he is the best footballer ever. He is one of my heroes, if not the shining beacon when I was a kid. I had all his videos. He was the player everyone wanted to be. I can't hold him in higher esteem than that. To be able to shake his hand, get a cuddle off him and a picture, it made my birthday."
There were cheesy photographs around the training complex and similar, extraordinary scenes at Liverpool's Melwood training ground where Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Robbie Keane and Xabi Alonso – whose father played alongside Maradona at Barcelona – headed the queue of players waiting to see him.
"I was having a discussion with Maradona in my office, but it was very difficult," Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez said. "There was a constant stream of our biggest players wanting to meet him." Matters were complicated by the entire Carragher clan pitching up.
Maradona spent two hours with Javier Mascherano, earmarked as his captain.