ALEX FERGUSON has tried every psychological trick in the book during a decade of fiercely-contested matches against Arsenal but he really dug deep to pull out his trump card ahead of tonight’s Champions League semi-final – by being ‘nice’.
It’s not a word you normally associate with the irascible Scot, especially coming after the terse and sarcastic exchanges with Rafael Benitez that have punctuated this season’s Premier League campaign.
But there really is no other way to describe his comments about Arsene Wenger as they prepare for a game that has supporters wallowing in nostalgia about the days when Arsenal and United rather than United and Chelsea or United and Liverpool were the big rivals.
Don’t forget the two clubs shared 11 of the first 12 Premier League titles between them and memories of the Battle of the Buffet, when Ferguson was said to have been covered in pizza thrown by an Arsenal player after United ended their 49-game unbeaten run in 2004, were yesterday replaced by misty-eyed visions of a friendly rivalry between two clubs who like to do things the right way.
“He’s kept his principles always the same, and that’s great credit to him,” enthused Ferguson when asked to talk about his opposite number. “I think Arsenal have reaped the rewards of that and they won’t change when they come here, they will do exactly what they always do and have a go. I’m sure of that.
“I think there’s a similarity between the style of the teams and both teams believe in young players also.
“We’ve now given eight players from our academy debuts in the first team this season and I think that’s fantastic for a team challenging for honours. So the similarities are there strongly. And the history and tradition of both clubs have always been the highest.
“For years now we always looked over our shoulder at Arsenal and they’ve looked over their shoulders at us. Now we have Chelsea banging on the door and this season Liverpool are making a big effort. But over a long time ourselves and Arsenal were the dominant force in English football.”
It’s that fact which makes tonight’s first-leg tie so appetising and there may well be neutral supporters hoping Wenger’s commitment to attractive football is rewarded sooner rather than later having gone four years without a major trophy.
He certainly found an ally in Ferguson who scoffed at suggestions that the Frenchman’s job had ever been under threat.
“That’s the cynical world we live in,” he said. “Don’t forget you’d had me out of it three years ago. You had me in a bath chair on Torquay beach! It’s a cynical world we’re in, it’s about any headline that will sell a paper.
“They haven’t won the trophy recently but first of all you have to consider Chelsea’s impact over the last four years, they won the first two and we won the next two. That has a lot to do with it. It’s not an easy league to win. The top four are probably the best teams in Europe now, that’s shown in the fact that three are in the semi-finals and last year we had an all-English final and it’s possible we can have the same again.
“And when it comes to cups you can lose a cup tie any way — it could be a freak goal, it could be a missed penalty. It’s always been that way.
“But look at them now. I think they’ve not lost in 24 games, they have a very good record that reflects their current form. That’s why we have to prepare in the best possible way.
“Looking at the tie and the players on view you think this is a perfect semi-final full of terrific footballers and both teams play good football.”
The similarities are so great and had either club been slightly quicker off the mark their respective line-ups could have been wearing shirts of the opposition.
Wenger was very keen on getting Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon, only to discover United had made the first move. Ferguson was equally attracted to Cesc Fabregas.
“Fabregas is a wonderful footballer,” said Ferguson. “You are always interested in the best young players but we didn’t have a chance to sign him. Arsene was under the carpet before me.”
Ferguson’s passion for the revival of an age-old rivalry was infectious and means there is little chance of him taking Arsenal’s challenge lightly.
“We need to win without losing a goal. I would be delighted to win the game 1-0, I’d happily take that to the Emirates,” he said, having also warned about the danger of Theo Walcott , describing him as “probably the quickest forward in England right now”.
But don’t let Fergie’s new image fool you. He may be Mr Nice Guy this morning but his determination to defend the Champions League is intense.
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