Golden age gives Wenger and Ferguson new vigour

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Competitive fires often burn brightest when they have been stoked by a set-back, although logic suggests they should, nevertheless, eventually be dimmed by age. Just don't go telling Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger that.

With the former set to take charge of his 100th FA Cup tie today, having watched in horror as his Manchester United side suddenly fell five points behind Arsenal in the Premier League, the latter offered a thought on what it could be like when the Scot reaches the century in years, also. "I cannot imagine, at 92, sitting on the bench and saying 'Come on my friend, let's do it'," Wenger said of what has turned out to be the most enduring, enduringly fascinating and simply monumental of managerial rivalries.

But it was said with a smile and a twinkle and maybe a little wisp of illogical hope. "To win or lose," Wenger said, "I personally believe it matters to you to the last day of your life." Both men – Ferguson now 66, Wenger 58 – have moved into stages of their existence where some have, from time to time, had the sheer temerity to raise the issue of retirement. And maybe the Arsenal manager has learnt from the experiences of his United counterpart that to even enter into a debate about when to step down is source of damage.

"It's a balance between internal desire, instinctive animal desire to fight and to win," he said, protesting that he is still in his 50s while Giovanni Trapattoni has embarked on a new challenge as the manager of the Republic of Ireland just short of his 69th birthday. "As long as winning means something to you, you go for it. Because in this life you sacrifice nearly everything for the next game and you live like a professional football player. That means that if it's not important any more, you are not prepared to sacrifice."

One glance at Wenger, or Ferguson for that matter, shows that their competitive instincts deem the sacrifice necessary as they go into combat, once more, at Old Trafford in a fifth-round FA Cup tie which, publically, both relish but, privately, both would have desperately preferred to avoid. "The FA Cup is the FA Cup and this will be a terrific cup tie," Ferguson said yesterday before adding: "We have got a massive European game next week and so have Arsenal. I'm sure there will be one or two changes in both teams."

With United travelling to Lyons in the Champions League and Arsenal hosting AC Milan in the same competition, that is undoubtedly true, but there appears to be a very practical advantage handed to Ferguson for today's game: he has the fittest squad.

"We have a strong squad, the strongest we have had," he declared, confirming that even Louis Saha has participated in training all week, and is available, and that "a couple of changes will be made". "You have to get the balance right," Ferguson added, mindful that he cannot really lose back-to-back games at home, having capitulated in last Sunday's Manchester derby and needs to establish a marker for the rest of the season. There is the small matter of a psychological advantage, something that Wenger was aware of with the league run-in and with another trip to United's home to navigate as part of that campaign.

"We play at Man United and we want to show that we can do well," he said. "We go back there later in the League and it can have an effect. We always want to win because it makes you stronger and I believe highly in that influence. We want to win the big games. We will fight, don't worry."

Arsenal will have to do so with a squad cut to the bone but still oozing quality, while Wenger "expects" United to field their strongest line-up. He protested that he had just 14 fit players (excluding the goalkeepers) and even then only late fitness tests will determine the involvement of Emmanuel Adebayor – whose influence was lauded by Ferguson, an avowed admirer – Gaël Clichy and Philippe Senderos. "We will dig deep of course," Wenger said. "Because we want to do well and want to qualify and Man United are a big club and they will want to respond to their disappointments. So it promises to be interesting."

Ferguson concurred with that. "The game will be a normal Manchester United-Arsenal game, full of great commitment; feisty, competitive, but with a lot of football because both teams want to play good football," he said. Indeed, in a time when the integrity of the Premier League and its participants is in question, he went further and added that the two clubs were "run the right way" and were not about to change.

There is, of course, a mutual admiration born of achievement and longevity with Wenger scoffing at suggestions that United's title challenge has drifted. "I feel they are still in the race because two games ago we were second so it shows how it can change and this year in the Premier League it can change quickly," he said, which married with Ferguson's claim that United "have a desire to do better".

No points are at stake tonight and it will be fascinating to see to what extent Arsenal do commit to victory in a competition they have won four times under Wenger to Ferguson's five. In recent years it has become almost a duopoly.

"I remember the first one," Ferguson said of his initial FA Cup tie as United manager. "You can't be involved in 99 cup ties and not have some great memories."

And some great victories. Wenger has them too. "I always had the same desire but I am not always capable to win all the games," he said. "In this job you must be destroyed when you lose and happy when you win. Always." It is what makes this latest encounter so utterly fascinating. And it is what keeps those fires burning.

Arsenal's Cup absentees

* Injured

Tomas Rosicky, Manuel Almunia, Robin van Persie, Johan Djourou, Alex Song, Abou Diaby, Denilson, Theo Walcott.

* Ill

Henry Lansbury (glandular fever)

* Absent on compassionate grounds

Bacary Sagna.

* Doubtful (all had fitness tests last night)

Philippe Senderos (knee), Emmanuel Adebayor (hamstring), Gaël Clichy (hamstring).

Psychological pointers? Why Cup victories have little bearing on title triumphs

By James Mariner

There have been four FA Cup meetings between Manchester United and Arsenal during the Ferguson-Wenger era. Every time the two have been in contention for the League (though when they met in the 2005 Cup final, Chelsea had already won the title), but the winner of the Cup game is not always a good guide to the eventual title winners:

* 1999 (semi-final, Villa Park)

Manchester United 0 Arsenal 0

Replay: Arsenal 1 (Bergkamp) Manchester United 2 (Beckham, Giggs) [aet]

FA Cup winners Manchester United

Champions Manchester United

When they met at Villa Park, United were top of the League, four points ahead of Arsenal. They went on to win the title by a single point from the Gunners – and made it a double with victory over Newcastle in the FA Cup final.

* 2003 (fifth round, Old Trafford)

Manchester United 0 Arsenal 2 (Edu, Wiltord)

FA Cup winners Arsenal

Champions Manchester United

When the match was played Arsenal were top, five points clear of United (as is the case today). United ended up taking the title by five points from the Gunners.

* 2004 (semi-final, Villa Park)

Arsenal 0 Manchester Utd 1 (Scholes)

FA Cup winners Manchester United

Champions Arsenal Arsenal were seven points clear of Chelsea at the top of the League and 12 clear of United in third place when they met at Villa Park. Arsenal were to win the title by 11 points from Chelsea, 15 ahead of United in third.

* 2005 (final, Millennium Stadium) Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0 [aet, Arsenal won 5-4 on pens]

FA Cup winners Arsenal

Champions Chelsea

The Premier League season had finished the week before. Chelsea were champions (95pts), with Arsenal second (83pts) and United third (77pts).