United and Arsenal set to write a new chapter of an epic story

There was a time - not that long ago - when Manchester United facing Arsenal was (arguably) the most widely recognised club match in world football.

Sanchez and Valencia

Alexis Sanchez (right) and Antonio Valencia (left) battle for the ball. Source: Getty Images

While other battles between great clubs raged on internally, it was the Premier League that began to break into different markets, and by the turn of the millennium, had found its place in the hearts and minds of millions beyond the United Kingdom.

The names of that era roll off the tongue effortlessly: Yorke, Sheringham, Solskjaer, Beckham, Giggs, the Nevilles, Schmeichel, Scholes, Butt, Stam, Van Nistelrooy and Andy Cole on one side, Henry, Pires, Parlour, Adams, Dixon, Keown, Wiltord, Bergkamp, Kanu, Seaman, Gilberto Silva and Ashley Cole on the other.

And then there was Roy Keane and Patrick Viera. A rivalry so good they made a documentary about it.

For those who witnessed it, those matches are seared into the mind, the blend of ruthless competitiveness and magnificent skill played out under the guide of two of the greatest managers football has ever seen, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

Whenever they clashed, there was a sort of morbid curiosity that followed. It was Senna-Prost or Agassi-Sampras of football management, both having spent time dominating the other.

To my mind, and countless others, there’s something a little bit magical in the air when these two clubs come to together, as they will on Saturday night (live on SBS from 11pm) at Old Trafford.

Ironically, both are shadows of their former selves in terms of on-field results. Neither has been there on the last day of the season for multiple years now and it would seem folly to suggest either will be there again this time.

The may seem particularly harsh on Arsenal, just two points off top spot, but the four teams in the top five are arguably better-equipped for a title charge.

By contrast, United are still figuring exactly what to do about Jose Mourinho - or in truth, Mourinho is still figuring out what to do about United. It has not been an easy fit by any measure.

With both managers needing a win for their respective causes - keeping Arsenal in the title hunt or keeping the wolves at bay for United - the scene is set for a cracking showdown. But did you really expect anything else from such a game?

In 2011, I had the extraordinary privilege of being present in the Theatre of Dreams on the afternoon United bashed Arsenal 8-2, one the Premiership’s all-time dominant performances. 

That day is best remembered not for Wayne Rooney’s glorious hat-trick but Wenger’s decision to stand on the bricks next to the coaching dugout. Such an evocative image; defiant, for better or worse, to the bitter end.

What I took away was just how much it meant for the United players to not only win but to squash their opponent into the turf, without mercy. Have they lost that edge since the departure of Sir Alex? it would appear so.

But such are the wonderful swings and roundabouts of English football that old faces are re-united and new glories are put on the line.

Mourinho and Wenger have a colourful history. Wenger has been one of the few prepared to take on Mournho, both in the press and on the touchline.

But his record is shocking - Mourinho has won seven of 13 competitive clashes and the other six were drawn. A Community Shield is all Wenger has to show for defeating the Portuguese maestro.

“I do not make it a competition between two managers. It is between the two teams. It is Arsenal against Man United. We have won and lost games on both sides. You do not play against a manager, you play against a team and you analyse their strengths and weaknesses,” Wenger said this week.  “What makes it for the audience is the quality of the game. We have seen some games this season not respond to the expectation level.”

It’s possible that Wenger is right and we’ll see a match that doesn’t reach the hype of the past. But how could it? It was a different era, with both teams playing similar roles.

Now they meet again on different terms. The managers won’t want to make it about themselves, but it already appears too late. It’s Mourinho versus Wenger on every billboard - with United versus Arsenal in the small print.

And while times have changed, Manchester United and Arsenal battling it out on the field still remains as prestigious as ever. Deep down, we all know that football doesn’t get much better than this.

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5 min read
Published 18 November 2016 at 5:31pm
By Sebastian Hassett