SAT high in the stands of the Emirates, Alex Ferguson will now be acutely aware that his relations with Arsene Wenger, having thawed over recent seasons, are set to freeze over once again.
Cesc Fabregas lit the touch paper ahead of the Champions League semi-final at Old Trafford with his first goals in nearly six months to extend Arsenal’s unbeaten run to 20 games and leave Wenger confident of more fireworks in his argument with Ferguson.
Fabregas’s double was enough to maintain Arsenal’s bid for third place in the Premier League and piled on more relegation fears for Gareth Southgate.
It was Arsenal’s first win in six matches against Southgate and Middlesbrough are now facing an increasingly hopeless battle to avoid a drop into the wilderness of the Championship, with this defeat — their 10th successive league loss on the road — leaving them three points adrift of safety.
Arsenal’s hopes of catching Chelsea to book an automatic Champions League place next season remain alive and Wenger will prepare for the crunch semi-final with Manchester United confident of upsetting Ferguson yet again.
“It’s important that we are at our best on Wednesday night because when we are at our best we can beat everybody,” he said.
“If you go to Old Trafford without belief you make it very difficult from the start.
“We will go there with belief, desire and enjoyment because we enjoy to be where we are. Sir Alex knows us and what he will think is that it will be an exciting game between two teams who like to play. We know each other well but the talent on the pitch always surprises you. I believe that both teams will go for it.
“We will be faithful to the game we play and everywhere we go in Europe we try to win the game. If we play at our best we have a good chance, we can do it.”
Wenger could not resist a playful response to being told Ferguson had been studying Arsenal here, checking for any possible cracks his side can exploit at Old Trafford.
“Sir Alex was here? I thought he was coming to watch Middlesbrough!” Wenger said with a smile. “But we do have good red wine here in the directors’ box so that was maybe why he came to watch us.”
Ferguson saw Arsenal secure their sixth successive home win and Wednesday’s first leg promises to be yet another epic encounter in a season already stuffed full of them.
Southgate, meanwhile, faces United in his next league outing knowing he needs to upset the form book by picking up a vital victory. His young players were not short on determination but they are running out of games to fulfil their promise with the only currency that matters — league points.
There is something about Wenger’s aristocrats that brings the best out of Southgate and his players. And they were at it again early on at the Emirates, where before yesterday they had never lost.
Despite the grim prospect of second tier football next season, Southgate’s players are stubbornly refusing to give up their 11-year stay at the top level and early on it was the fiercely determined performance the Middlesbrough manager needed.
For long periods they frustrated Arsenal, while also maintaining a threat on the counter-attack, but Arsenal’s superiority finally paid off in the 25th minute.
Andrei Arshavin, who has already etched his name into Arsenal folklore in his first season after his stunning four-goal salvo at Liverpool last week, broke down the left to tee up Fabregas for a simple finish from 10 yards.
Stewart Downing forced an excellent sprawling save from Manuel Almunia three minutes before half-time with a 20-yard drive.
But Middlesbrough came even closer five minutes into the second half through Jeremie Aliadiere when the former Gunner was released by Downing but was denied by an alert Almunia. But Fabregas rounded Brad Jones with 23 minutes remaining to set the seal on a comfortable victory, before he and Walcott were substituted, with Wenger clearly prioritising ahead of his latest bitter argument with Ferguson.
The only casualty was former United defender Mikael Silvestre, who was replaced at half-time with a back strain.
Southgate, meanwhile, is showing strains of his own as he battles to avoid the drop. “Results were kind to us on Saturday and we wanted to capitalise on that,” he said.
“We’ve been in this position for 10 weeks now and we are used to the pressure. We will be underdogs for our remaining four matches but we’re still in there fighting.
“There is no way of knowing how many points we need but clearly if we can beat the world champions next weekend it leaves it wide open again. You could drive yourself crazy worrying about the other teams.
“There’s no disgrace in how we performed today but when you get half chances you have to take them. It’s been our problem all season.”
REFEREE: Chris Foy (Merseyside) 8: Let the game flow impressively and left his cards in his pocket, as both sides caused him little problems.
MATCH RATING: *** It was a world away from their stunning Anfield display but an average Arsenal still outshine most of what their rival Premier League teams can offer.
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