Following the final whistle at the Emirates this afternoon, Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson will shake hands (we must hope) and go their separate ways for some three months; the one to another summer of anguished introspection and reflection on failure, the other almost certainly to enjoy his 12th Premier League title. It will not be their last meeting but nor will it be anything like the climactic one that had been anticipated at the start of this month.
Arsenal's wretched return of seven points from their past six games has counted them out of the chase for the championship and now the game next Sunday – at home to Chelsea – is the only serious hurdle for United left to jump. What was supposed to be a series of games to define their season, starting at Schalke last Tuesday, is shaping up as a triumphal procession.
"It's big games after big games and we've got the experience to handle it, I'm sure," Ferguson said on Friday. But the Gelsenkirchen game was such a stroll that the same XI could probably have played Arsenal the next day. Players such as a rather miffed Nani plus Dimitar Berbatov, Rafael, Anderson, Darron Gibson and John O'Shea can all be brought in today or, like the suspended Paul Scholes, left until the return leg with Schalke on Wednesday. That adds up to a far stronger squad than Arsenal have been able to muster, even allowing for their worse run of injuries.
The signings that the two clubs made last summer were instructive. In one sense it looked as if Arsenal were buying more proven ability in Marouane Chamakh, Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci than United, with Chris Smalling, Javier Hernandez and Bebe. But although the Portuguese winger, at £7.4 million, has been the worst value and may yet go down as one of Ferguson's errors, Smalling was the only one of the six with Premier League experience, and Hernandez proved a huge bonus in a season that was expected to be merely a learning process.
"I didn't expect anything like this [from Hernandez] this season," Ferguson said. "Any young player coming in, particularly from South America, getting used to our way, British life and our climate... it's completely different from Mexico, of course. The boy has met every challenge."
If foreign players generally take up to a year to acclimatise to the pace and fury of the Premier League, Wenger's purchases represented a huge gamble. Worse, when Robin van Persie and Thomas Vermaelen were both injured in September – the latter only returned in a reserve game three days ago – all three newcomers had to play far more than was desirable, making over 150 appearances between them.
Another key difference was that Ferguson has benefited from hanging on to Scholes and, especially, Ryan Giggs, whereas Wenger allowed a player like Patrick Vieira to move on at the age of 29, leaving behind a rather one-dimensional midfield and a lack of leadership and experience that the club captain had provided. Forced to turn back to Sol Campbell for the second half of last season, Arsenal went the other way again last summer and brought in three players who had not played a minute of English football between them.
"At the moment I do not want to focus too much on what we miss," Wenger insists. "We need to focus on what we have, and there is no need to add any negatives to our situation. Let's finish our season with pride and we will try to add to our team what we can. Over the last five years this has been the highest quality we have produced." In patches – such as the Champions' League wins over Braga (6-0) and Shakhtar (5-1) – that is correct, but they lost both return games, which meant a tougher draw in the knockout round and an away game with Barcelona four days before going to Old Trafford for an FA Cup defeat.
That made one win in 11 games against United. As Ferguson says: "In big games you've got to make sure you pick the right team with the right tactics and impose your game too. Arsenal are a good team, they play good football and the games are always tight with them. There's no easy game, so it will be exactly the same [today]. They might even be a little bit more relaxed with the situation they're in but they'll want to win and so do we."
Whatever happens, both managers – possibly unlike Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea – will be around to fight another season. Ferguson's appetite is undiminished and so is his health, which he has always insisted is the most important consideration. Even with a new majority shareholder in Stan Kroenke, Arsenal will not sack Wenger, and when it was put to him that a new role as a director of football might be a possibility, the response was unequivocal: "I am a football man. I am not an office man."
Arsenal v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 2.05pm; United v Schalke is on ITV1 on Wednesday, kick-off 7.45pmReuse content