When he walks on to the pitch at Old Trafford tomorrow, Arsène Wenger can be forgiven for thinking back to May seven years ago when Sylvain Wiltord's goal sealed a memorable 1-0 win that clinched Arsenal the Double. But he might not want to remember what he said afterwards. "We want tonight to be a shift of power," he said.
Wenger believed winning the Premier League at the home of Manchester United, who had at the time won the title for three successive seasons, would mark a sea-change in the history of English football.
Wenger has since enjoyed another league title win, with his so-called "Invincibles" of 2004. But as he takes his fledglings to United tomorrow, he is being forced to accept his side have slipped even further behind than at any point in his 13-year reign.
Manchester United require a point to seal their third successive Premier League crown, matching the golden run that began a decade ago and which Wiltord's goal ended abruptly in 2002. Power has indeed shifted, only even further towards Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Wenger acknowledged yesterday that his great rival Ferguson had won the battle this season. "Manchester United have been better than us without a doubt, the whole season," Wenger said. "At the end of the day, you have to say, yes, you are the best and there is no shame to say it. We have not to be scared to say someone is better.
"Manchester United are world champions, European champions and will be champions of England. Everybody has to cope with that, not accept it and come back next year and beat them."
Perhaps seeing United lift the trophy at Old Trafford tomorrow would do the young Arsenal side some good, give them the motivation to vindicate the faith Wenger puts in them. "They have watched us lifting the trophy as well. It's part of sport," the Arsenal manager said. "Of course it can inspire the players."
The danger, however, is that Arsenal's failure to live up to the standards set by Manchester United is becoming a chronic affliction. The Gunners are currently 18 points behind the champions – "The 18-point gap is a reflection we have to take on the chin," Wenger said.
But the gap is fast becoming a gulf. Arsenal have finished on average more than 15 points behind the champions in the past four seasons, so 18 points is about the norm.
Wenger contends his side are not that far behind United this season, that only in defence have they failed in comparison to the champions. But when the crunch came, his side failed to come even close to delivering.
Wenger has seen Arsenal's season crumble in three disastrous weeks. In the middle of April, the Gunners were to hit the decisive period of the season in peak condition. Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor were back from injury, and the club had two winnable semi-finals, against Chelsea in the FA Cup and Manchester United in the Champions League.
A 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in the former, a game in which they scored first, dented morale and Wenger's side were flat and lifeless when it came to the two-legged tie with United. Humiliation followed hard on the heels of disappointment when Chelsea won 4-1 at the Emirates on Sunday to inflict Arsenal's worst home league defeat for 32 years. Now they face having to applaud as United lift the title for the third year in a row.
Wenger's explanations are fast becoming excuses. He boasts about how well the club have performed since November, as if someone else had been manager for the first three months of the season. He talks about having a midfield with an average age of only 22, as if it were a condition imposed on him by the club.
Wenger is reluctant to spend his way out of trouble, because he knows there are no guarantees it will work. Back in January 2006, he bought three players who were to be the heart of the new young Arsenal – Adebayor, Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott. Only Walcott can be said to have been a total success. Wenger seems unsure where to play Diaby, who often is told to occupy a position wide on the left of midfield while the more lightweight Samir Nasri plays centrally. And Adebayor is the most fickle of strikers, a man who wanted to leave last summer and has been brooding over it ever since.
The scenario is becoming depressingly repetitive. Another season without a trophy for Arsenal. Another summer spent fretting over the future of Adebayor.
Wenger said yesterday that Adebayor came close to leaving the club last year, and a possible transfer to Chelsea moved a step closer when the manager said he would have no problem selling a player to a domestic rival. "If I feel that a player should go, or could go, why not sell him to one of the other top four?" Wenger asked.
Arsenal would be better off cashing in on Adebayor this summer and spending the money on a couple of defensive players – a centre-half and a midfielder who can tackle would be most fans' preferred choices. But a more important task, and a far harder one, will be trying to rediscover the inner belief Arsenal possessed when they won the title that May evening at Old Trafford seven years ago.
Mind the gap: Gunners slipping away
Arsenal lie 18 points behind champions-elect Manchester United and have finished over 10 points behind the champions in three of the four years since their 2004 title success.
2004/05 Finished 2nd, 12 points behind champions Chelsea
2005/06 Finished 4th, 24 points behind champions Chelsea
2006/07 Finished 4th, 21 points behind champions Manchester United
2007/08 Finished 3rd, 4 points behind champions Manchester UnitedReuse content