Rivals to play it fair for game of the half-century

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The Independent Football

As football yesterday mourned one of the outstanding managers of the 20th century in Bill Nicholson, two of the few to have emulated his League and FA Cup Double of 1961, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, agreed to play down their differences and emphasise affininities in the build-up to this afternoon's potentially fiery Premiership game at Old Trafford.

As football yesterday mourned one of the outstanding managers of the 20th century in Bill Nicholson, two of the few to have emulated his League and FA Cup Double of 1961, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, agreed to play down their differences and emphasise affininities in the build-up to this afternoon's potentially fiery Premiership game at Old Trafford.

Manchester United's meeting with Arsenal there 13 months ago led to bans or fines for five of the north London club's players, which Ferguson referred to only a week ago as "getting away with murder... that mob". Ruud van Nistelrooy's missed penalty late in the game, which brought the trouble to a head, allowed Arsenal to continue their nascent unbeaten run, which remains intact and will reach the half-century mark if they avoid losing later today. In that case, their lead over United would be either 11 or 14 points, with Chelsea, who defeated Blackburn 4-0 yesterday, the only serious threat to retaining the title.

Yesterday, however, both managers were publicly insisting that United could not be discounted even then, while agreeing that Arsenal are already a great team despite their lack of European success. They also accepted a joint responsibility to ensure today's match is played in the right spirit for a capacity crowd of more than 67,000 and a worldwide television audience in almost 200 countries.

"There's a big responsibility on both managers to keep the game fair," Wenger said. "I like to feel every manager first of all loves football and therefore will make sure it is a football game. I will tell the players about that too. Without desire to win I don't know what we are doing in the job, but you want the game to be respected. Ferguson and I have a responsibility to make sure the game is a real football game."

His opposite number said: "It's interesting that he spoke about responsibility because I've always felt it. Not just what happens in a big game but also what we say in the press. It can create a tension the players can do without." Ferguson was even prepared to say of his rivals: "They are a great side, a marvellous side. You [the press] are quite right to acclaim them."

Arsenal have declared Thierry Henry available but the respective captains, Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane, will need a final fitness check this morning.

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