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Saturday, April 26, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Ferguson, Wenger playing mind games


LONDON -- The bitterness and rivalry between the pair are reaching boiling point as the fight for the Premiership title enters the decisive weeks, with tempers frayed and an obvious standoff between the contestants.

Christopher Davies

Not Arsenal and Manchester United, but their respective managers Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson whose public battle is every bit as absorbing as their teams' slugging it out -- literally at Highbury last week -- for the championship.

The Mind Games title, which has been building up to a wonderful climax like the title race itself, has seen the Frenchman and the Scot exchanging opinions, accusations and insults.

It has been a magnificent sideshow to the real thing, with the eloquent Wenger and the abrasive Ferguson trying to gain what they feel are psychological advantages for their sides. Brownie points are almost as important as Premiership points.

Ferguson has claimed many victims in the Mind Games game, notably Kevin Keegan on one memorable occasion, when the former England striker was manager of Newcastle and lost his rag live on television to the delight of Sky Sports.

But Wenger has proved a stubborn opponent, refusing to rise to any bait and quite capable of more than holding his own with the self-styled Mind Games master of Manchester.

Wenger's one-liners are classic. For example, when told that Ferguson felt his team played the better football, the Arsenal manager replied:"Everyone thinks they have the most beautiful wife at home."

The back pages of the tabloids have been living off the Wenger-Fergie feud recently and the 2-2 draw between the clubs, which saw Arsenal defender Sol Campbell sent off at Highbury for an errant elbow thrust in the direction of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has raised the stakes to unprecedented levels.

Ferguson rightly condemned the use of the elbow, pointing out that someone could be seriously hurt. Jason McAteer of Sunderland, on the wrong end of Roy Keane's elbow earlier this season, would no doubt agree.

So might Lee Bowyer, now of West Ham but a Leeds player when United's David Beckham appeared to give his opponent the elbow during the game at Elland Road last autumn. Like many managers, Ferguson is prone to forgetting what his own players can do when criticizing others.

Wenger, for his part, has made defending the indefensible almost an art form. Arsenal players have been shown 49 red cards during his 6 1/2 years in charge and the impression is that he believes all 49 decisions have been wrong.

One admires Wenger for supporting his players in public, but in the face of damning video evidence perhaps he would be better to say nothing. Too often Wenger is in a minority of one when saying one of his players did not deserve a red card.

While the war of words is entertaining in its own way, the Wenger vs. Ferguson issue is detracting from the rather more important matter of the Premiership title.

Campbell's dismissal for "striking or attempting to strike an opponent"-- in his case Solksjaer -- meant the England defender incurred a four-game ban, three for this offense plus one extra match on the multiple offense rule as it was his second sending off of the season.

The fourth match of his suspension will be the F.A. Cup final against Southampton and Wenger, as he does, called referee Mark Halsey's decision "a joke" though no one at Highbury is laughing.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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