Wenger: My bond with Fergie

'It's a bit like a war for both of us. You are a target with people shooting at you. You have to survive'
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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson, we learn this week, has added a dot.com business to his portfolio of extra-mural interests. It's an internet restaurant-booking service named - presumably with deliberate ambiguity - top-table.com. There are those, even among the Old Trafford faithful, who might recommend that Ferguson would do better to start one aimed at procuring reinforcements for their club.Perhaps one named topnamesformanu.com. Even more so now that Nike have reportedly agreed a £300m sponsorship deal (henceforth to be known as an Anna, after the merry widow, Ms Nicole Smith) over the next 20 years.

Sir Alex Ferguson, we learn this week, has added a dot.com business to his portfolio of extra-mural interests. It's an internet restaurant-booking service named - presumably with deliberate ambiguity - top-table.com. There are those, even among the Old Trafford faithful, who might recommend that Ferguson would do better to start one aimed at procuring reinforcements for their club.Perhaps one named topnamesformanu.com. Even more so now that Nike have reportedly agreed a £300m sponsorship deal (henceforth to be known as an Anna, after the merry widow, Ms Nicole Smith) over the next 20 years.

Three goals conceded against both Chelsea and PSV Eindhoven, and three games without a victory, represent a drama for Manchester United. While it would be foolish in the extreme to contend that it could develop into a crisis, suddenly his team are looking vulnerable. Indeed, a team without adequate reserves.

Arsÿne Wenger may have lost Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit over the last two seasons; yet, he has also adroitly signed Thierry Henry, Nwankwo Kanu, Silvinho, Oleg Luzhny, Lauren, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord.

Ferguson's lack of spending in the same period has been remarkable for the manager of one of Europe's major clubs. His purchases of Dwight Yorke and Stam were astute, but otherwise his only acquisitions have been three goalkeepers, only one of whom has been a success, Mickaël Silvestre and Quinton Fortune. He may yet prove the doubters wrong, but there is prima facie evidence to make the case that, with further injuries inevitable, United could be found deficient in defensive cover of a suitable standard. We could be witnessing signs of that already.

For Ferguson, the last eight days' events have been particularly disturbing in view of today's affair at Highbury, when toptable.com presumably doesn't recommend a post-match Sunday lunch with his nemesis, Wenger. On Tuesday night against PSV in the Champions' League, United were the spitting image of their normal selves, rather reminiscent of Arsenal on their worst behaviour.

In contrast, the following evening, the Gunners served due notice to Ferguson that despite their celebrated departees, they still retain the qualities - a voracious appetite to win the ball and inspired movement once in control - which is evocative, in fact, of the Manchester United we have long known and admired.

The scene at the end of the 3-1 defeat by PSV was as aesthetic as a bout of Greco-Roman wrestling. Whether we accept that David Beckham's post-match throat clearance was merely that or a general sign of disgust at certain decisions, rather than deliberately directed at the referee Markus Merk (Uefa has accepted it was not the latter), the acidity of the England midfielder's reaction revealed as much about the frustration in the United camp as the defeat itself.

Ferguson explained the absence of Beckham and Giggs, who only appeared as late substitutes and were among six changes to the side from the previous Saturday, by suggesting he was more concerned about Arsenal than PSV. They are either the words of a man concerned that his team do not have adequate strength in depth (yes United, with their squad of 34), once stalwarts like Jaap Stam and Fabien Barthez are injured - or it is a cunning psychological exercise designed to induce trepidation in Wenger that the full might of the champions will descend on north London today. "Oh, it was a compliment," said Wenger on Friday, determined not read too much into his counterpart's remarks. "I think he has a lot of respect for Arsenal. He's not stupid, and I'm not too much, either. We both know that it's much more important what Bergkamp, Giggs or Beckham do, rather than what we managers say."

Neither does the Arsenal manager believe that the advantage now lies with his team. "I think they will have a different motivation against Arsenal than they had against PSV," he said. "And a different team. For me, it's a 50-50 game."

There was a definite pragmatism about the Scot's thinking in mid-week. Quite simply, defeat at Highbury will concern Ferguson far more than failing to overcome PSV. The Dutch side may have accused him of arrogance, but Ferguson's strategy does makes sense. United should still ease relatively comfortably into the second group phase of the Champions' League.

Nevertheless, in defeat United were susceptible to assault in their last two games. It was only in part attributable to Raimond van der Gouw's uncertainty and indifferent handling. Wenger insisted there were other explanations. "Against Chelsea, I don't think they [United] had fully recovered from the Dynamo Kiev game and against PSV on Tuesday they had a weakened team," he said. The Frenchman would not reveal whether he would attempt to exploit those perceived frailties in the United rearguard by again fielding all three of Henry, Kanu and Dennis Bergkamp against United, the latter on the right of midfield. The ploy had proved hugely effective in the victory over Lazio.

Though in many ways the antithesis of Ferguson in demeanour, Wenger maintained that the Premiership's most successful managers had much in common. "It's a bit like a war for both of us. You are a little like a target with many people shooting at you and you have to survive." At pains not to become involved in the verbal sparring that is the usual prelude to these fixtures, Wenger paid tribute to Ferguson's longevity in the game. "It is remarkable," he said. "I think it will be very difficult for him to stop.

"It will be painful because it is an addiction. Can you imagine the same guy sitting at home on Saturday afternoon at three o'clock? To be truthful, I am scared as well. But it is something we will all face one day."

The answer might be to start an internet website. If all goes to plan, something like championsofeurope.com.

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