In the seven seasons since Arsène Wenger walked into Highbury's marble halls and began his duel with Alex Ferguson, Arsenal have only twice wrested the championship from Manchester United. On both occasions they defeated them home and away.
That raw statistic underlines the importance of tomorrow's summit meeting at Old Trafford. It is premature to talk of titles being decided in September, especially within earshot of the Chelsea manager, Claudio Ranieri, or his Liverpool counterpart, Gérard Houllier, but history suggests this match will go a long way towards deciding the destiny of the Premiership pennant.
This is partly because United are so much more ruthless at dispensing with the division's cannon fodder. Arsenal must therefore ensure they take points off them themselves. Winning both matches earns them a six-point differential, an advantage which has proved decisive in the past and may do so again.
In addition, there is the mental effect, a factor Wenger highlighted yesterday. "This game will not decide the title because it is very early in the season," the Arsenal manager said. "Nevertheless it is a big game which will have a psychological impact. It will show us and them where we stand." Arsenal, he added, "stand top of the League but we are coming off a game where we were not at the level we would like to be." That was the midweek evisceration by Internazionale. Following on from a fortuitous home draw with Portsmouth the confidence engendered by their best start to a League season in more than half a century has all but drained away.
"The players are still down," admitted Wenger after taking a subdued training session at London Colney. "They are disappointed about the Inter result. They know it was a big blow. But there is the chance to catch up. It was not a knock-out. The season has only started and we must think about what we have in front of us. When you go into a season you know you will have this sort of disappointment at any club. What matters is how you respond to it."
Wenger echoed the claim of his France striker Thierry Henry that Arsenal were glad to follow Wednesday's defeat with such a demanding fixture as tomorrow's. That may be kidology. While success at Old Trafford would revive the team another defeat would be damaging, especially with fixtures against Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle in the Premiership, and trips to Moscow and Kiev in the Champions' League, to come. It was noticeable last season that Arsenal tended to lose matches in clumps.
Significantly, Wenger added: "I know we will be slaughtered if we lose, but you must remember there are 32 games to go. We are in a marathon."
For his part, Ferguson said he thought Arsenal showed plenty of character against Inter and would do so again tomorrow. "They played with great determination against Inter Milan," he said. "They put everything into it and you expect Arsenal to be that way coming to Manchester United irrespective of what happened on Wednesday."
After crushing Panathinaikos 5-0, the United manager has none of Wenger's concerns about confidence. He said after training at Carrington: "There's a good atmosphere about the place. It's difficult to get them on the boil right away but we have got them to a reasonable level and they have gathered more early points in the League than normal. Tuesday's performance was encouraging. The speed of our play was terrific, the determination of the lads good. Hopefully, we can produce that on Sunday. It's the right platform."
The contrast in moods may lead to a change in approach to last season. Then United, who were widely perceived as underdogs, were notably more physical, especially in the first match at Old Trafford when Phil Neville unexpectedly subjugated Patrick Vieira. United are now favourites, but with even the Community Shield reaffirming the bruising nature of these contests Wenger expects another fierce match.
"Last year we were muscled out up there," he said. "We were a little bit too orientated to play technically and were not ready for the physical factor. We will have to be ready this time." He added: "This game is rarely a kicking match and I do not expect it to be spoiled but it is usually a physical, committed game." With that in mind Wenger is contemplating the recall of Ray Parlour in midfield. He did stress the need for Arsenal to "play football" but the probable absence of Sol Campbell may also prompt a cautious selection.
Campbell, whose father died on Thursday, did not train yesterday. Wenger said he would make a decision this morning on whether Campbell should travel north after speaking with the player. He added: "At the moment he looks unlikely to play. You never know how people will react on these occasions, some become lions, some cannot get their heads on the game." Campbell's absence would further tilt the odds towards United though his replacement, Martin Keown, will relish another scrap with Ruud van Nistelrooy.
While that bout could be one for pugilist connoisseurs, two other contests will attract both the purists and Sven Goran Eriksson. Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole have been in patchy form for longer than the England coach cares to remember. Their examinations by, respectively, Henry, a prolific scorer against United, and, if he plays, Cristiano Ronaldo, could prove instructive.
It is also a big match for Tim Howard and Jens Lehmann, two goalkeepers new to the Premiership; for Kolo Touré, still learning his trade in the most demanding of schools; and Steve Bennett, a referee neither manager admires.
By tomorrow night, as usual, one of these teams will be top. Though there will still be eight months of the campaign remaining, they will be favourites to finish there.
"For United the biggest game is always Liverpool," concluded Ferguson. "You can't beat that atmosphere. But over the past few years this has been our most important fixture." Ditto Arsenal. Ditto the Premiership. If a season can turn on a game, this is the game.Reuse content