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Friday, Oct. 22, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Typical war of words ahead of Premiership showdown


LONDON -- It is likely to become very nasty and personal with no punches pulled -- and that is just the war of words between Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and his Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger as the build-up to Sunday's Old Trafford showdown reaches boiling point.

Christopher Davies

If Arsenal avoids defeat it will extend its unbeaten Premiership run to 50 games and Ferguson would rather walk across burning coal than see the team he dislikes most of all reach its record-making half century at United's home.

The managerial animosity tends to be more one way than a mutual, non-admiration society. Ferguson has found it impossible to get the better of Wenger in the mind-games battle he loves to play with opposing managers and it clearly irks the Scot that the Arsenal supremo won't surrender.

Despite being French, few managers are more articulate in English than Wenger who is able to express himself in a manner few of his Premiership counterparts can in their first language. A perfectionist in every respect, even now Wenger instructs the club's media team to tell him if he makes a grammatical error, which happens about as often as an Arsenal loss in the Premiership.

Two years ago at the height of the championship tussle between the two heavyweights of English football, Ferguson claimed United had the best team. Wenger responded: "Everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home."

When told Ferguson said he had apologized for published, off-the-record comments that were critical of Arsenal, Wenger said: "If there is an apology it must be coming on horseback."

Maybe the best of all is Wenger on Ferguson in 2002: "His weakness is that he doesn't think he has any."

So perhaps it has not been a surprise that this week Ferguson has taken to verbal bare-knuckle fighting rather than the more subtle approach of Wenger though the Scot's tactics left him vulnerable to a swift counter-punch.

When Arsenal visited Old Trafford last season there was a pitch brawl after the final whistle that eventually saw four of its players handed bans totaling nine games with the club fined £275,000.

So Ferguson's assertion a few days ago that Arsenal "got away with murder and got off scot-free" with the Football Association sentences "ridiculous" seems difficult to justify. Ditto his claim that what Arsenal did was "the worst thing I have seen in sport."

Worse than Roy Keane's wince-inducing lunge at Manchester City's Alfie Haarland, who was fortunate to be in one piece after the United captain's crunching tackle? Worse than Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick at a spectator at Crystal Palace? Worse than the infamous hounding of referee Andy D'Urso after the referee had the audacity to correctly award a penalty against United at Old Trafford?

"Perhaps they should have put us against a wall and shot us," was the clearly non-rattled Wenger's reply to Ferguson's outburst. "I think he has a sense of humor."

On a more serious note Wenger added: "I hope he will calm down. I'm surprised he said it before the game. I can guarantee you it doesn't influence us. For managers, the responsibility has to be to prepare for a match on the pitch not making it a game full or resentment and unnecessary aggression."

Game, set and match to Wenger.

The likelihood is that the most awaited game of the season will be another unforgettable encounter though not necessarily memorable for the right reasons.

This columnist is convinced Arsenal would love to see Ruud van Nistelrooy, the focal point for the Gunners' post-match aggression last season, sent off. Do not be surprised to see falling Gunners when the Dutch striker is involved in a collision with "injured" opponents.

For its part United is likely to go out with all guns blazing as it did when it beat Arsenal in the F.A. Cup semifinal last season, its physical approach paying dividends. Arsenal's cause in this respect would not be helped if Patrick Vieira does not recover from an ankle injury.

Matches between the clubs have become almost un-refereeable. A red card or two is virtually guaranteed and Mike Riley will need to take the firmest of grips on the game from the kickoff.

United, which would trail Arsenal by 14 points if the Gunners win, dare not lose if it is to retain realistic title hopes. Though the season is still relatively young, pulling back a 14-point deficit would be mission impossible.

The contrast in the two sides' form is marked with United having lost three of its nine games and managing only nine goals compared to Arsenal's 29. Newcastle, with 17, is the next-highest scorer.

United has conceded only seven goals but after letting in just eight, Arsenal is mean at the back too.

Fasten your safety belts on Sunday because it could be a bumpy ride.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is looking further than Sunday's summit.

Arsene Wenger will be offered a seat on the board when he finishes his time as manager of the English champion, chairman Peter Hill-Wood said this week.

The Frenchman is within days of signing a three-year extension to his contract which will keep him at Arsenal until the end of the 2007-08 season.

That will include the first two years at the £350 million Emirates Stadium which is due to open in August 2006.

"There are just one or two technical matters to be sorted out, nothing serious," said Hill-Wood. "If Arsene stopped being manager then I am sure we would want him to stay in some other role. Maybe that could be as a director. It would a great shame to lose that expertize."

Hill-Wood does not believe that Wenger will inhibit the man who eventually takes over.

"I am certain he would not interfere in any way," said the chairman.

Hill-Wood added that he is confident that Wenger, 55 today (Friday) would not be tempted away from north London by the likes of Real Madrid or AC Milan.

"I honestly don't think he would accept such an offer. He is so happy with us. He is well paid and he is left alone to manage how he wants," said Hill-Wood.

"I think he has found his spiritual home and is very much in love with the club."

You can, with the confidence that night will follow day, cross Sir Alex Ferguson off the list of would-be successors to Wenger as manager.

One newspaper was wondering if it had been writing Double Dutch when compiling a roundup of Premiership players who had been on international duty. Three reporters rang round the clubs to put together a list which they forwarded to the writer who was compiling the story.

For example, Manchester United: Ruud van Nistelrooy (Holland) etc, etc.

As the newspaper's style is that "Holland" has to be the "Netherlands," the writer did a spell-check changing all references to "Holland" with the result: Charlton Athletic: Matt Netherlands (Republic of Ireland).

R.I.P. Matt Holland . . .

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


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