Wenger brushes aside Ferguson's attempt to surrender the title

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The Independent Football

The word had come down from Manchester. Sir Alex Ferguson had conceded the championship. At his morning press briefing Ferguson had said his team selection for tomorrow's Premiership match at Highbury, United's last chance of reeling in Arsenal, would be determined by the need to have his strongest XI on the pitch a week later, in the FA Cup semi-final between the teams. He would, it seemed, be 'resting' players to have them fresh for the Cup.

The word had come down from Manchester. Sir Alex Ferguson had conceded the championship. At his morning press briefing Ferguson had said his team selection for tomorrow's Premiership match at Highbury, United's last chance of reeling in Arsenal, would be determined by the need to have his strongest XI on the pitch a week later, in the FA Cup semi-final between the teams. He would, it seemed, be 'resting' players to have them fresh for the Cup.

An hour later, 200 miles to the south at London Colney, Arsène Wenger smiled. Then he laughed. "He has a good sense of humour," the Frenchman said. "I do not entirely believe him. It is a big game for both teams, a massive game for them. Manchester United are not out of the championship. We want to extend our lead." Thinking of United's fabled powers of recovery he added: "I've been long enough in England to know with Manchester United the [points] difference is never big enough."

Ferguson, unusually, had sounded less sure of his team's ability to close a gap which now stands at 12 points. Speaking before training at Carrington, he had said: "I think we are running out of time to catch them. After Sunday we have just eight games left and when you are running out of games it becomes very difficult. A win for us may make Arsenal a bit more thoughtful about the situation, though."

Still Wenger was not convinced. There was, he averred, a mental edge at stake, one that could prove significant at Villa Park next week. He was speaking from experience. The last team to field a weakened League team against Arsenal before playing them in the FA Cup was Southampton last May. They lost 6-1 at Highbury and went into the FA Cup final with such a negative outlook the match was lost before kick-off. "It will have a big impact psychologically," Wenger added. "I don't think they will rest players."

Maybe, maybe not. Ferguson had said: "You have to have an eye on the semi-final. I have to determine who is best equipped to handle it all because some of them have internationals in midweek and that makes it difficult with us having a midday kick-off in the semi-final. Diego Forlan, for instance, is away with Uruguay on World Cup duty and he doesn't get back until 5.30 next Friday."

It is not hard to see why Ferguson might prioritize the FA Cup. Not only is it United's only realistic chance of silverware, a semi-final victory would deny Arsenal the chance of matching United's proudest achievement: The Treble. Wenger may not be prepared to talk about it, he knows Arsenal still have Real Madrid and Milan to contend with, as well as Chelsea and United, but it is a genuine possibility.

A more immediate place in history awaits Arsenal tomorrow. If they avoid defeat they will establish a League record for the longest unbeaten opening to a season, surpassing the 29 matches achieved by Leeds in 1973-74 and Liverpool 14 years later. They will also equal Burnley's 30-match mark for an unbeaten run during a season, created in 1920-21.

"The unbeaten record is phenomenal and you can't ignore that," Ferguson said. "It has probably become an incentive for them. It's very difficult in this League to go undefeated, you need a certain bit of luck at times." The biggest slice came, of course, at Old Trafford when Ruud van Nistelrooy struck the bar with an injury-time penalty. Had that gone in Arsenal's unbeaten start would have lasted just five matches. There would also be three less points between them, mused Ferguson.

Wenger suggested the gap would be closer still. That match, he said, was a turning point in Arsenal's season, both because Arsenal, their confidence shaken by a 3-0 home loss to Internazionale, avoided defeat and because his players' responded positively to the furore over their indisciplined climax. Van Nistelrooy, you may recall, was rudely jostled by several Arsenal players at the final whistle, their petulant reaction prompted by the dismissal of Patrick Vieira for retaliating against the Dutchman. There was also a fracas in which punches were thrown.

"It was crucial to our spirit," said Wenger. "We came out and said we were sorry and we not only said it, we did it. We have since focussed purely on football. We did not behave like we want to on the football pitch and we have addressed that and changed our way."

Had Wenger, or the board, laid down the law? "It happened naturally," he claimed. "The players are intelligent and they reflected on the situation and felt exactly how I felt." He could not, though, resist another dig at Van Nistelrooy. "We felt there was a lot of provocation from Van Nistelrooy but that is his problem, not ours. We can only be responsible for our own behaviour and we deal much better with provocation."

Tomorrow's match, said Wenger, was an opportunity to showcase that improvement. Not that he expected problems. "The teams have always had a very positive approach and tried to play football, it is the rivalry which has sometimes made the contest go overboard. You have to choose. Focus on the fight, or the football. We want to focus on football."

Ensuring that they do will be Graham Poll, who has not refereed a match at Highbury since overseeing the home defeat to Newcastle in 2001. That match ended with Thierry Henry confronting Poll on the pitch after he had erroneously dismissed Ray Parlour and awarded Newcastle a penalty. "It was not one of his best performances but everyone can have a bad day," said Wenger. "Since then he has gained a lot of international experience and is one of the top referees in England so I must be confident. At that time he was quick to send players off and give yellow cards. In big games you must be sure."

And so to the contest. The odds favour an Arsenal side which has for some time been United's equal. Of 22 meetings in all competitions since Wenger arrived they have won ten and United six. The difference, until this season, is that United have been better at dismissing the Premiership's cannon fodder. The two previous occasions Arsenal won the Premiership they had to take the points off United themselves, winning at Old Trafford both seasons. This year they only drew in Manchester but avoided the slip-ups against the likes of Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers and Everton. United, meanwhile, have lost to Middlesbrough and Fulham at home, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester City away.

Explained Wenger: "In 1998 we surprisingly won the championship but from then to 2001 Manchester United were clearly the better team because most of their players reached the peak of their careers together. In the last three years we have come back to a comparative level at least. This year they lost Rio Ferdinand and have been unlucky in some games. In December they had the best defence, not any more. They lost Mikaël Silvestre and Ferdinand together and are not so efficient defensively."

Go on Alex, pin that quote on the dressing room wall and sent out your best XI. Surrender has never been in United's lexicon. To do so now would concede an advantage which may never be recovered.

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