Managers renew their bitter rivalry

Ferguson claims Wenger 'lets himself down' with criticisms of United players

So much for the well-chronicled thaw in that relationship: weekends like this still leave Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson barely above freezing point.

They both niggled away yesterday ahead of tomorrow's latest Emirates encounter, Wenger first observing "there is no angel" among strikers in the course of a discussion about the penalties Wayne Rooney has won against his side. Then Ferguson was less discreet, suggesting that his old adversary Wenger "lets himself down" with comments like those at Old Trafford last August in which he implied that Darren Fletcher set out deliberately to harm opponents.

The United manager's snap was sharpest, suggesting that Wenger was wrong-headed and guilty of double standards in his assertion after Arsenal's incendiary 2-1 Premier League defeat, that Fletcher was guilty of "anti-football". "I think that's where Arsène lets himself down with his own view of the Arsenal players," Ferguson said. "Everyone knows that Darren Fletcher is not a dirty player, not a physical player, not built that way. But he can win the ball because his timing and energy to get to the ball is fantastic. You can't call that a fault. It's disappointing. I don't think he [Wenger] really believes that. Sometimes it happens that way." Ferguson moved the conversation on before suggestions could be posited that William Gallas's challenge on Bolton's Mark Davies was contributing to his viewpoint.

Professional rivalry has its limits, of course, and Ferguson, following up on representations made to fans' groups by his club's chief executive, David Gill, last season, insisted that the vile "paedophile" chants aimed at Wenger over the past few years must stop. "I know there's been some terrible abuse from our fans to Arsène Wenger and there must be a line drawn. I think that they must know that themselves." Ferguson has also been on the receiving end. "Sometimes I can't hear these chants and I can't make them out," he reflected, though he did make an official complaint about fans near his Emirates dugout two seasons back.

Not for nothing does the Scot label an encounter "the biggest game of the season." Fletcher carries into it the personal injustice of his own dismissal in last season's Champions League semi-final at the Emirates. "That won't bother Darren," Ferguson said.

All does not appear well with his midfield, though. The manager was hardly gushing yesterday when Nani's unexpected resurgence was put to him. The Portuguese will need longer than a fortnight to prove his future after two such poor years in Manchester. Anderson's future looks doubtful, too. Wenger has his own worries, not least facing the threat of the country's most in-form striker with a 35-year-old centre-half who has played in League Two this season. Sol Campbell is by no means certain to start tomorrow.

The Arsenal manager was also persuaded to reminisce about the occasions when Rooney's cunning has won important penalties against Arsenal. The most infamous was in October 2004 when Campbell was wrongly judged to have fouled Rooney in the game at Old Trafford that ended Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run.

In August, Rooney also won a penalty against Manuel Almunia, a less debatable award but certainly one that raised the question as to whether he hit the ground before contact was made, prompting Wenger to point out that "there is no angel" when it comes to strikers. With Eduardo's tumble against Celtic the same month he was careful not to take the moral high ground. Wenger said: "You know how strikers are. There is no angel. They play a game. If you look at the penalty [Rooney won] at Old Trafford this season you cannot say it is not a penalty because Almunia really goes for it. The ball was already out and Rooney took advantage of the fact Almunia had already dived. You can say that it is intelligent. But the border between intelligence and starting to cheat, every striker plays with that.

"You have two games, one with the opponent and one with the rules and the referee and you try and extend that to your advantage. Sometimes you go a little bit over the limit but that is part of the game of a striker."

For the record, Wenger felt that the penalty in August was just, although not the one in 2004. Whether Campbell will play is another matter because Thomas Vermaelen has made a rapid recovery from what was a suspected broken leg against Aston Villa and will be back, Wenger said, "against Chelsea [on 7 February] at the latest".

Nevertheless, Wenger said that he trusted Campbell was capable of playing at such a high level, despite his initial fears over the defender's fitness.

Sky Sports defy ban: United to back down

*The dispute between Manchester United and Sky Sports briefly escalated yesterday, with United demanding to know how Sir Alex Ferguson's weekly press conference at Carrington was broadcast on Sky Sports News, despite the broadcaster being banned from the event. United, who received £40m in TV rights last year, have decided there is no value in pursuing the issue further. Sky hope to be officially reinstated next Friday. Ferguson's irritation with the "divisive" content broadcast about the club has led to Sky's ban.

Ian Herbert

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