Why this Community Shield might actually have meaning

It’s a safe bet none of the 22 players who start tomorrow’s Community Shield spent their formative years dreaming of winning this ‘prize’.

Most years, the biggest thing in this game’s favour is it signals a return to the real stuff is close. Manchester City treated it as a glorified pre-season friendly 12 months ago, barely breaking sweat in going down to a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal.

Gunners fans kidded by the emphatic nature of their sides’ win would quickly shed their optimism after the opening eight Premier League games brought a paltry tally of two wins, a start that torpedoed title ambitions before Halloween.

The lesson from last year and many other Community and Charity Shields is simple: this game has little or no long-term relevance. This year’s edition, however, might just be different. For Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, tomorrow’s clash with Chelsea provides a 14th chance to finally record a long-overdue first win over Jose Mourinho.

For the Chelsea manager, a tantalising chance exists to undermine the growing sense of optimism at theEmirates that Wenger – helped by the signing of Petr Cech from theirWembley opponents – has at last built a squad capable of mounting a sustained challenge to win a first Premier League title since 2004.

But imagine the headlines Wenger will wake up to Monday morning if his side fall short again. The Frenchman is, at best, never more than three bad games from a crisis these days and another reversal to his bitter rival would raise uncomfortable questions ahead of the Premier League campaign.

Why can’t Wenger edge out Mourinho even once? How can Arsenal hope to dethrone Chelsea next season if they can’t find a way of beating them? Is Arsenal’s pre-season optimism merely hot air? These are the type of questions Wenger will be desperate to avoid.

Of course, in the big picture, defeat in the season’s curtain-raiser wouldn’t mean Arsenal can’t challenge for the title. However, it would still represent a sizeable pre- season blow. Confidence might not be shattered but it would be shaken.

On the other hand, an Arsenal win would have huge psychological value. A manager and a group of players can – and often do – claim to believe they can beat any foe but actions speak louder than words and public utterances and reality can be two different things.

Until Wenger’s Arsenal beat Mourinho’s Chelsea, public utterances of confidence from the red part of London will ring hollow. Arsenal’s need to win is great but Mourinho takes justifiable pride in his record against Wenger and won’t want to lose the Indian sign he has over him.

Such sequences, once surrendered, can be hard to regain. Wenger knows this better than most. Until Wayne Bridge’s famous late goal ended Wenger’s best chance of Champions League glory 11 years ago, the Frenchman almost never lost to Chelsea.

That Champions League quarter-final was Chelsea’s first win over Arsenal in 17 games over five years. Since then, Wenger has struggled to edge out Chelsea regardless of the identity of the man in the opposing dugout. When that person has been Mourinho it has been mission impossible.

Going further back, to April 1999, Wenger was doing to Alex Ferguson what Mourinho has done to him since December 2004. In the 97/98 season Arsenal beat United home and away en route to Wenger’s first double.

The 98/99 season began with a 3-0 Arsenal win in what was then the Charity Shield. A month later, Arsenal would triumph by the same score in a league game at Highbury before the return game ended in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

The sides would then meet in the FA Cup semi-final and, after the initial game ended 0-0, an epic replay would end in victory for United thanks to Ryan Giggs’ famous extra-time solo goal after Dennis Bergkamp‘s missed stoppage-time penalty.

The hex broken, the rest is history. United would win the treble and romp to the title in the two seasons that followed while Arsenal would have to wait until 2002 to taste success again.

In his book The Professor, Myles Palmer recalls the thoughts of Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler on Wenger’s demeanour after that game.

Speaking in 2001, Tyler told Palmer: “Arsenal had the Indian sign on United until Dennis Bergkamp’s penalty was saved by Peter Schmeichel. I’ve never seen Wenger more angry after a game than that night. Not just losing the Cup, but losing the edge that they had over Manchester United.”

It’s easy to imagine Mourinho feeling a similar level of fury should Chelsea lose at Wembley. He rarely misses an opportunity to undermine an opponent he clearly intently dislikes and will relish this early chance to put down a marker.

Ultimately, this is a game neither Arsenal nor Chelsea can – or will – treat lightly. Time may show that this year’s Community Shield actually had real meaning. It promises to be fascinating.


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