Arsenal cannot win the Premiership title this afternoon, but Manchester United, already 11 points behind them, can assuredly lose it.
Arsenal cannot win the Premiership title this afternoon, but Manchester United, already 11 points behind them, can assuredly lose it. In that respect, the fixture is an early-season version of last April's, when United arrived at Highbury 12 points in arrears and well behind Chelsea too; Louis Saha's late equalising goal did nothing more than concentrate Manchester minds on the FA Cup semi-final meeting five days later, in which they produced one of their best performances of the season to extract a measure of revenge.
The hunger evident that day at Villa Park, when Paul Scholes scored the only goal, was a critical difference between the sides, with Arsenal - not for the first time against United - unnerved by the ferocity of their opponents' early tackling. Yet with last season's fracas at Old Trafford in mind, Arsène Wenger has opted this weekend not for meeting fire with flame, but for dousing the whole occasion with cold water and emphasising the necessity of relaxing and playing the sort of football that has decorated so many of his team's 49 unbeaten Premiership games since 4 May 2003.
"Football is not war," he insisted on Friday. "I don't want to win a war, I want to win football games. You have to be up for it, but you have to be relaxed as well. We focus on quality and the most important thing is to have a relaxed approach to the game. Do you think when you play a game like this you have to motivate players? The most difficult thing is to get them relaxed enough to express their talent. All the big players I've met who couldn't perform at the top level, it's because they were inhibited."
Lack of any inhibition, he believes, is one of the reasons that this afternoon's game is likely to include three of the best teenage footballers in the world: Francesc Fabregas, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. "I think you're a bit spoilt in England," Wenger added, "with those players and others like [Anthony] Le Tallec and [Florent] Sinama-Pongolle at Liverpool. Rooney just puts a shirt on and goes out and plays, he doesn't look like he's bothered. Fabregas doesn't look inhibited at the top level, but you see some players who are.
"The only ingredient of talent is that you're ready early. Mozart played piano at six years old better than I will ever play; some players play football at 17 better than I will ever play, because they have a special talent and can express it."
The depth of Wenger's regard for Fabregas, the 17 year-old Spaniard, suggests he would happily throw him into the Manchester maelstrom whether or not Patrick Vieira is fit to return: "I'm not worried about him. He has good awareness and I'm not 100 per cent convinced there isn't even more than he shows at the moment. He's a little bit restricted in what he does at the moment, because he doesn't want to make mistakes.
"The worry was when we first played him, at Everton, against [Lee] Carsley and [Thomas] Gravesen but he showed he could cope. Players in central midfield are responsible for the quality of the team's play and to have so much maturity makes him special."
Doubts about the full fitness of Vieira and Roy Keane, who for eight years have been regarded as the key players in this fixture, make the outcome more difficult to assess. In Arsenal's favour are the lack of necessity to win, and the way youngsters like Fabregas and Jose Antonio Reyes have allowed an already formidable side to become rejuvenated without losing either shape or consistency. Much as Sir Alex Ferguson trumpets the progress of his own young players, most of them have not taken the giant step up as effortlessly as the Arsenal pair; crucially, he has on his own admission not yet found a settled team or even formation.
The back-four and Roy Carroll in goal may have gelled well, but being forced into signing Rooney prematurely - United always intended to wait until the January window, if not next summer - has produced a confusing number of options. Last Saturday's fragmented performance in a goalless draw at Birmingham proved that it is impossible to integrate Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha and Alan Smith into the same side, with or without the best two wide players, Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs.
Giggs is hardly the whirling-shirt wonder of the 1999 FA Cup semi-final, but United need him to exert pressure on the champions' two possible weak links, Lauren at right-back and Jens Lehmann in goal. United's players are well aware that the latter can still be unnerved by their physical challenges in the penalty area ("In his first year here he was going mental," one said). Wenger, however, is keeping faith with the German despite two expensive mistakes against Panathinaikos on Wednesday: "He'll accept the criticism. You can't say he's done fantastically well on the goals, especially the first one but it's part of being a goalkeeper. That's why only strong goalkeepers survive. He's disappointed and said sorry and that's it.
"He's played 47 of our 49 unbeaten games, so if you look at the numbers, you can't say a guy who's 47 times unbeaten on the trot is a weak keeper. If I was convinced he wasn't good enough, I wouldn't play him, but I'm telling you he'll play."
The Arsenal manager was less forthcoming about who else will, though there are no doubts about the fitness of Thierry Henry, who was strangely subdued in Athens, Robert Pires or Edu. The latter pair could both be among an enviable range of talent on both sides looking on from the dug-outs. The feeling remains that Arsenal are the better balanced on the pitch and will be able to achieve at least the draw that is all they require to reach another milestone and take a small step towards the championship. Giant leaps - in two matches against Chelsea - can come later.
Manchester United (probable): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo, Keane (or O'Shea), Scholes, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy, Rooney.
Arsenal (probable): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Campbell, A Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira (or Edu), Fabregas, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry.
Referee: Mike Riley.Reuse content