Final is a balancing act for Ferguson

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The Independent Football

One passionate, absorbing, unyielding rivalry - two very different views. When, this week, Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson recalled their two sides' infamous meeting on 24 October the former considered his opponents' approach and declared it "severe". On the same day in another city, the Manchester United manager said he had counted only three tackles on Jose Antonio Reyes in the game in question "and that," he said "doesn't constitute the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, does it?"

Ferguson didn't require an answer to that, he was making a point. At stake today is the FA Cup, but before that there has been an important battle for the heart of a Hampshire building company manager. Rob Styles has never refereed a high-stakes match between Manchester United and Arsenal before and the message he was being sent this week, from Ferguson above all, was that he must, on no accounts, pre-judge the reputation of his team.

The 41-year-old referee has sent off a record seven players this season and one of them has been Liverpool's Herman Munster-like midfielder Igor Biscan, but the last thing the official will want on his hands today will be a red-card horror show at the Football Association's flagship event.

None of the four matches this season between these two teams has come to blows but they have teetered dangerously on the brink at times, which has given lie to a general perception that in the game in October United kicked Arsenal off the pitch.

It is a perception that Ferguson has done everything to crush. More than 30 years in management have told him that a bad reputation is a dangerous thing in football and it was with that in mind that he gave a sensational interview to The Independent in January in which he addressed the issue before the two sides' second Premiership meeting. "Whoever referees the game has got a mammoth job on," he said then, "and I don't want him going into it with the wrong impression of what really happened last time."

Even now Ferguson is understood to despair when he watches the video of a match in which his team were portrayed as the bullies and yet he considers the first bad tackle - Ashley Cole on Cristiano Ronaldo - to have been committed after just 28 seconds. This week he was more phlegmatic about the fallout from the match which he dismissed as an "Arsenal slant" on events and just "a bit of propaganda".

"They had lost their 49-game unbeaten record and there had to be a reason" he said. "I think it was convenient for them to say that. But the statistics and the facts do not bear that out. There was only three fouls on Reyes the whole game, only three fouls and there were six on Ronaldo. Arsenal have got to put their hands up and say, 'We're a competitive team'. And we expect them to be competitive."

For competitive, read just as ruthless in the targeting of delicate dribbling wingers like Reyes and Ronaldo.

Naturally, Wenger saw it a different way. He said he was "happy" with the choice of today's referee and insisted that "we have a good record and we go into the game to try to play and after that is all down to the referee to make the rules respected."

That was about as serious as it got with the Arsenal manager who - forbidden by a truce to discuss Ferguson - was in such a playful mood that he christened one particularly insistent questioner his substitute "Alex".

As the reporter in question harangued the Arsenal manager about Arsenal's poor record against United in competitive fixtures - they have won only one in the last nine meetings - Wenger replied mischievously, "Well done, Alex, you speak very well, Alex".

No Thierry Henry, but with Freddie Ljungberg fit again, Wenger has a choice to make on the flanks of his midfield. The smart money says he will start with Robert Pires on the right, Reyes on the left and Dennis Bergkamp and Robin van Persie in attack. Wenger glowed with pride at a record that has seen his team overhaul United from five points behind to take second place in the Premiership by a margin of six and he dismissed any suggestion that the three defeats this season represent a psychological edge for his opponents.

"Let them say that but what is good about football is that the truth of the day is predominant," he said. "I know that we will go into this game, as we have done in all games, knowing that we can bring the trophy home. What is good in football is that it is not predictable.

"I feel that we have cohesion, spirit and we believe that we have the quality to beat them. You act now like it is a decade that we haven't beaten Manchester United - it's not true. It's two games.

"You don't include the Community Shield [which Arsenal won] but I could say to you that the FA Cup semi-final [last season] was not really the game that mattered to us because we had the Champions' League game three days later and we left out Henry."

Ferguson has not bothered trying to tweak Wenger's temper this week but he has addressed the question of Arsenal's post-Old Trafford crash with some relish. He was "proud", he said, of the "character" of his team.

"We've proved that time and time again," he said. "I don't know enough about their players to tell you about them."

Gary Neville now appears to be fit to play but United have Gabriel Heinze out of the game so that should mean a left-back start for Mikaël Silvestre and Wes Brown at centre-half.

It is a rivalry born in the modern Premiership - and its egos, money and power - that is breathing life into a beloved old competition today. Wenger against Ferguson, Roy Keane against Patrick Vieira, two teams who will not give up the stage to Chelsea just yet and a referee who cannot allow himself to be conned.

This feud is not to everyone's tastes but, for an afternoon at least, it has given the FA Cup back its identity.

Styles file: lowdown on today's referee

Rob Styles was a controversial choice to referee the Cup final, and has yet to officiate a game between Arsenal and Manchester United.

The weekend before his appointment he was the subject of heated criticism from Fulham's manager Chris Coleman after awarding Middlesbrough a last-minute penalty for an incident that took place outside the box.

That feud ended when Styles apologised, having seen video evidence: "Fair play to Rob Styles, he rang and apologised, but it was a bad decision - simple as that," Coleman said.

Earlier in the season Chelsea's manager, Jose Mourinho, was similarly incensed after Styles failed to see that Didier Drogba had been tripped by Aston Villa's Ulises de la Cruz. "In some countries, that would have been two penalties," Mourinho said.

Perhaps his most controversial game, though, was Crystal Palace v Norwich at Selhurst Park. After failing to award two penalties for what seemed to be reasonable claims, he later gave a penalty when Andy Johnson went down yet again, for what seemed much less like a spot-kick, with Norwich's Leon McKenzie speaking for many when he accused Styles of "evening things up".

Styles is also one of the most prolific wavers of red cards in the Premiership. He has sent off seven players in 23 matches this season, including five straight reds, a total equalled only by Mike Riley. However, none of those dismissals was very controversial.