Ferguson warms to his old rival

United manager softens towards Wenger ahead of today's heavyweight clash

From the demise of Kevin Keegan (first time around) to the rise of Jose Mourinho, the relationship between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger was the defining one in English football. The meetings between Manchester United and Arsenal were as near as the Premier League came to replicating the gran classico between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The images of those years endure – Roy Keane facing down Patrick Vieira in the tunnel at Highbury, Martin Keown taunting Ruud van Nistelrooy in the wake of his missed penalty at Old Trafford.

These days, perhaps because Manchester United face enemies with deeper pockets than Arsenal and perhaps because they are two great survivors whose footballing philosophies are very similar, there seems to be a genuine warmth between Wenger and Ferguson. Wenger joked that the détente was sparked by the fact that Ferguson no longer considers Arsenal a threat.

"No, I just think the character of the teams have changed," said Ferguson. "When Arsène first came to Arsenal there was a feisty relationship between the clubs and that probably transferred itself to both managers.

"We were both competing for the same No 1 spot and some of those games were very, very feisty. But there is no Keane or Vieira, who were both volatile characters and captains of their teams. The personality of both teams has changed a bit but even in our last game at Old Trafford, which finished 0-0, it got a bit heated in the closing moments.

"The other thing is that Arsène and I have been here for such a long time that it is hard to imagine that we weren't going to have one or two arguments. Longevity brings that, whereas we have loads of situations now where managers come in and vanish after a couple of years. It's just the two of us now and we'll probably ride off into the sunset together."

Nevertheless, Arsenal's last three encounters with Manchester United have been painful events. They were all within three weeks of one another and the last, a goalless draw, confirmed United's third successive championship, a reminder that since Wenger's last trophy, the 2005 FA Cup, Ferguson has lifted seven pieces of silverware of various denominations.

Before, there was the European Cup semi-final, a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford that could have been very much more followed by Manchester United's elegant, Ronaldo-inspired destruction of Arsenal on their own pitch, which left Wenger hurt and embarrassed.

"We made the right start at the Emirates," Ferguson said, recalling what he considered to be United's performance of the season. "The atmosphere was terrific; they had their fans right behind them but we killed that in seven minutes or something.

"It was a great performance. I don't think anyone could have lived with us that night – and we had a 1-0 advantage from the first leg. If you have a 1-0 head-start going into the second leg of a semi-final, I think it's a big advantage.

"But I think we have to start doing well against the top teams," Ferguson added. "Last season we won the championship but dropped six points against Liverpool, five against Arsenal and two against Chelsea. That has to change."

He added that he doubted Rio Ferdinand's statement that he would be ready to face Tottenham on 12 September was accurate. "I think he will need a week longer than that," Ferguson said, adding with a trace of sulphur: "It is nice to know that Rio has let us know when he is going to be fit." Comments by the Northern Ireland manager, Nigel Worthington, that Jonny Evans required an ankle operation also met with Ferguson's displeasure.

However, he has never agreed with suggestions that Arsenal are the side most vulnerable to Manchester City's advances, citing the demolition of Everton, Portsmouth and Celtic as proof.

"I have never known anyone to win by six at Everton in my time," he said. "Arsenal are a young team, why would they not mature and improve? They are managing change, we had to do that three or four years ago and it is not easy.

"It's the most difficult part of management but Arsène has always picked the moment when he thinks it's right for players to move on and he has done it fantastically well over the years.

"He has done it with Overmars, Petit, Anelka and Vieira, he has always done good business and he has done it again with Adebayor and Touré. I don't think Arsenal's level of ability has changed one bit and they seem to have a good harmony in the squad," he reflected, aiming another dig at Manchester City, the new enemy and one far closer to home.

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