James Lawton: Forget Abramovich, Ferguson versus Wenger is the only show in town

Football: Manchester United and Arsenal collide in the Community Shield tomorrow heralding another season of hand-to-hand combat
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The Independent Football

The Showpiece opener used to go under the name of sweet Charity and now they call it the Community Shield, but of course some things in football never change, the use of inappropriate labels being just one of them. We will be reminded of this sharply enough tomorrow afternoon in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

There has never been much charity in the national game and as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger engage in their latest bout of all but hand-to-hand combat the idea of "football in the community" can never have been so stretched. We are, after all, talking about a sporting society in which this summer's biggest player was driven around in a bomb-proof car.

The old community of football, such as it was, has been torn apart - by Russian money and the consequences of a decade of financial irresponsibility and inadequate administration that have left a legion of beloved clubs, most poignantly West Ham, fighting not for glory but mere existence.

In Cardiff we will see that even at the apex of the game financial vulnerability runs so deeply it grips even the coach who is arguably the most brilliant ever to ply his trade in these islands.

A year ago Arsenal's Wenger looked untouchable. He held the Double and, finally it seemed, the measure of his old nemesis Ferguson. He talked openly of the shift of power in English football. Arsenal had beauty in their game - and they knew how to win the big prizes. Now they are £40m in the hole, scuffling for a new stadium, and by no means guaranteed to regain the high ground they surrendered so limply last spring.

Thierry Henry and Robert Pires, lovers of showpiece occasions, may well illuminate the Community Shield - but the reality, when the real business starts to unfold next week, is that Arsenal have lost crucial ground. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, it has shifted beneath them. Certainly nothing illustrates the flux of English football more dramatically than the swiftness of Wenger's change of circumstances - one that must have assumed nightmarish proportions in his mind when he first heard that Roman Abramovich, the Czar of Chelsea, was in the market for the likes of Henry and perhaps Patrick Vieira.

That threat seems to have abated - at least for a while - but events at Stamford Bridge can only have intensified his belief that his team's destiny may have irretrievably slipped beyond his power to control.

There is no doubt that if ever a coach needed to re-animate his team with a couple of major signings, it was Wenger this summer. But his hands have been tied and his ambitions stifled, and he is surely most taken with the irony that it is Ferguson's ability to hold on to the Premiership he tore from Arsenal in a superb surge to the finishing line that is being most doubted.

As the websites fill with complaints that Ferguson has variously been gripped by arrogance, complacency, or has simply lost the plot, the chief complaint is that he has negligently failed to replace David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron and that the United midfield is denuded to the point of creative bankruptcy.

Ferguson has already rebutted the charge with some force, pointing out that neither Beckham nor Veron were key players in the United renaissance and that, having been frustrated in his desire to sign Ronaldinho, he will await opportunities while getting by with such as Paul Scholes - many good judges' idea of last season's Player of the Year - Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, the rather useful World Cup winner Kleberson with possibly some help from the brilliantly versatile John O'Shea - the Premiership's best young player by some distance last season.

The fact is that for all the stock-piling of Abramovich, and the quality of Arsenal's best players, United retain by far the Premiership's strongest and most experienced squad. Experienced, that is, in the vital business of winning both matches and trophies.

So far Abramovich has spent £60m but with the collapse of his move for the great Italian striker Christian Vieri none of that fortune has yet to be invested in a sure-fire winner. His coach Claudio Ranieri - whose chances of longevity at Stamford Bridge may well be somewhat less than bomb-proof - was hinting at this reality this week when he pointed out that it took seven years for Ferguson to land his first title, though the Scot might say that the process could well have been accelerated by the kind of resources that Abramovich is now flooding into the Chelsea cause. Indeed, the Old Trafford manager might wryly reflect on the attitude of his board when he targeted the Dutch striker Patrick Kluivert five years ago.

The then leading shareholder and chief executive, Martin Edwards, said that nothing would be done to undermine the pay structure of Old Trafford. He also said that just because he and his plc directors wore business suits, it didn't mean that they didn't care passionately about the club. However, it is as the Americans like to say: money talks. And no one has ever been more eloquent than the new owner of Chelsea.

Yet for all their love of the profit line, the Americans, of course, would be first mystified, then appalled by the impact of Abramovich on the competitive balance of our national game. The idea that he could walk in from nowhere, as far as the English football authorities were concerned, and buy up the equivalent of the Miami Dolphins or Chicago Bears, and sign up unlimited talent as though he was acquiring so many trinkets, is unthinkable. This is because professional American sport, though relentlessly commercial, embraces the meaning of the word "league". The concept there is that a league is only as strong as it weakest link. Here, weak links are simply uncoupled.

This, bizarrely enough, means that the new season which the Community Shield heralds promises unprecedented intrigue and another explosion of interest. Can Fergie hold on? Can Wenger break free of his restraints? Can Gérard Houllier get Liverpool, enriched by the individual talent of Harry Kewell, to truly play like potential champions. Can Sir Bobby Robson move Newcastle up another notch?

The clues will be inconsequential at the Millennium Stadium - they generally are. But the symbolism will be huge. Ferguson versus Wenger is still the only rivalry that really matters at the top of English football.

The bet here is on Ferguson. He knows the course better than anyone else around. And he still has lots of money.

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