Wenger v Fergie: never has so little meant so much

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Both dug-outs at Highbury tonight will at least agree on one thing: that a shadow has been cast across the match previously known as the greatest traditional fixture of the Premiership season.

Both dug-outs at Highbury tonight will at least agree on one thing: that a shadow has been cast across the match previously known as the greatest traditional fixture of the Premiership season. Chelsea's 10-point lead looms large over both Manchester United and Arsenal, and the leaders' presence will be felt in a fixture in which, historically, both sides settled their scores with one another before they settled the destiny of the title.

Not any more. The irony is that Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger have never been more bitterly opposed than they are tonight. Never before have they stored so much personal animosity towards each other. Never, after the rows that broke out following the Old Trafford match on 24 October, will defeat feel quite so painful and humiliating. And yet never has so little, in terms of the Premiership title, been at stake.

Tomorrow, Chelsea swoop on Ewood Park in what, you suspect, will be the sacking of another Premiership outpost on the way to the title. Their exceptional wealth, their cocksure young manager and the ruthless, unfettered way in which they approach success - see the alleged approach to Ashley Cole - pose an enormous challenge to Ferguson and Wenger. But there are hardly two men better equipped to meet it.

For most of English football, the die has been cast. From this season's Premiership title onwards, the consensus is that the future belongs for Chelsea: the best players, the biggest games, the most important trophies. But this is emphatically not an instinct shared by Ferguson and Wenger. They are among the few who have not been spooked into surrender by the march of Chelsea and they will both treat tonight, as another intensely personal confrontation. A confrontation between two men who will never settle for a role at the margins of English football.

Tonight matters for that reason above all, but also because relations between the two managers have never been quite so bad as they are now. After the food thrown at Ferguson at Old Trafford, and the recriminations that came to a climax when the United manager labelled Wenger a "disgrace" in The Independent this month, any hope of a détente is over. Before 24 October, Ferguson claimed the two occasionally talked at Uefa coaching conferences, and that did not sound entirely implausible. But if they were to pass in the corridors of Highbury tonight, the grand marble halls will feel rather more like the cold store of an old stately home.

One glance at their players offers another reason why neither manager is yet ready to concede his place at the top of the Premiership. Ferguson might even have considered starting without Wayne Rooney tonight before the teenager offered the kind of argument for his inclusion against Middlesbrough that makes selecting football teams seem easy. Wenger toyed with resting Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira against Wolves, then reasoned that their appetite for competition at this stage of the season would be dimmed rather than enhanced by one game less.

None of this is intended to suggest that either man does not feel the heat from Chelsea. Wenger's instinctive reaction yesterday was that whoever loses tonight is "out of the title race" - and, on reflection, he emphasised that the loser is "definitely out" if Chelsea beat Blackburn. He spoke kindly of Rooney's performance against Middlesbrough but there was bitterness when he touched upon the penalty the teenager won against Sol Campbell in October.

From his perspective, Ferguson discussed the possibility of a draw and the gap that would open as a result. "That's 12 and 13 points [less than the leaders] and a game less and you're chasing the sands of time as well as Chelsea," he said. "They are in a great position on Tuesday night; they are praying for a draw and backing themselves to win at Blackburn."

But neither of them spoke with despair and, as you would expect of two men who have supervised the winning of 11 Premiership titles and six FA Cups between them, they reserve judgement on Chelsea. "In England, everyone goes with the team of the moment, like when we were on a 49-game unbeaten run," Wenger said plaintively yesterday. "I go with reality, with the football we play and the challenge we have ahead of us."

Wenger asked for a sensible comparison to be made between Chelsea's achievements of the last eight years and those of his own club. Ferguson made his point when he snorted in derision last week at the suggestion that Chelsea could ever rival United for reputation and size. These are, after all, managers who have faced countless new rivals. A few have endured while others, like Leeds United for example, have simply melted away. They may despise each other, but at least tonight Ferguson and Wenger know what they get: an indefatigable enemy who will be there for a few years yet.