Arsenal against Manchester United has always been the ticking time bomb, the ultimate grenade that simply exploded when somebody swore or said something nastily provocative. It goes without saying now that both Arsenal and Manchester United have never been the best of bosom buddies. They never send Christmas cards to each other and they’re constantly bickering behind each other’s backs.
In fact it would be safe to say that the weekend’s latest instalment is just waiting to kick off both metaphorically and realistically. The arguments and differences of opinion can never be accurately dated back to a specific time but what we do know that there has never been any love lost between Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger.
Occasionally both Wenger and Ferguson will open up a bottle of vintage red wine or indulge in one or two joky pleasantries. But it is now common knowledge that both men would quite happily rip each to shreds in a boxing ring. In sport personal rivalries can often be more self destructive than beneficial but for Arsenal and United but angry animosities are there for all to see. Sometimes the impression is that both just hate each other’s guts.
During the summer both teams prepared for the new season in a way that is now almost customary. Sir Alex Ferguson, whose United side were just humiliated in the Champions League Final against Barcelona at Wembley just shuffled around his pack of cards, fine tuned his squad and bought Ashley Young, undoubtedly one of the brightest, fastest and trickiest wingers in the country. No fuss, no airs or graces or trumpets. Business done.
Meanwhile back in North London Arsenal were tearing themselves to pieces, indecisive, racked with uncertainty and simply shooting themselves in the feet. Nobody knew what was happening, the world was crumbling around them, players were dithering and dallying and an air of obvious crisis had set in. Throughout the trouble and turbulence Arsene Wenger slowly sunk into a personal hell, a kind of Chinese water torture.
The problem, you see, was that two of their most sumptuously gifted playmakers Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri wanted to improve their football education in pastures new. They just wanted to a new footballing environmment and perhaps understandably some decent trophies to show off. They both felt that Arsenal had lost their drive, ambition and hunger for success.
Very few football teams have the divine right to win anything but for Fabregas and Nasri it was time to sample a new set of shopping centres, new tourist attractions and even smarter dressing rooms. Fabregas has made his interest in Barcelona for as long as anybody can remember but now his childhood team had come calling. Finally the financial conditions were met, a transfer price agreed and Fabregas was back in his spiritual Nou Camp.
Sadly the first piece of the Arsenal jig saw piece had now gone and a gaping and irreplacable gap had appeared. The world had come to an end for every Arsenal supporter but then these things happen. It was time for a new era, complete regeneration and a good old fashioned shake up. Of course Fabregas was an exquisite playmaker, all lovely balance, extraordinary vision. and one of the most delightful passers in the game.
Likewise Nasri, a French oil painting with the most delicate of brushes was the complete footballer, drifing, floating and flitting into space, releasing the simplest of passes into all the most hurtful areas. Nasri though felt lonely,rejected and almost painfully overlooked. No player likes to feel unwanted or alienated but Nasri believed that the Arsenal fans were ganging up against him. So he had to go. Farewell Arsenal it was an honour to know you.
Having agreed his transfer fee to Manchester City Nasri has now taken those heavenly ball skills to one of the richest teams in the Premier League. City are now have so much money to play with that perhaps the whole team should contemplate retirement and play golf for the rest of their lives. Still Nasri is one happy bunny and Arsenal are now frightened rabbits who have just seen a car’s headlights.
Meanwhile at United all is wine and roses and hunky dory. Life is one long and leisurely stroll in the country, a picnic in the glinting yellow sun, strawberries and cream charming sing songs around the piano. It was the happiest and sweetest of times. The Premier League has been won for the 19th time and although they were given the most torturous of runarounds by Barcelona in the Champions League, its the beginning of a new season and let’s go for Premier League title number 20. It should be a breeze.
By their highest and lofty of standards United won the Premier League title without ever totally convincing the footballing world that they were still the greatest team. They were businesslike, utterly competent and easy on the eye. But on numerous occasions United were merely adequate, at times astonishingly good and more often than not a joy to behold. But they were rather like experienced actors who had seen the same cameras and knew their lines off by heart, veterans of stage and screen.
This season United have the same collections of jewels, emeralds and rubies to parade before the Stretford End faithful. Ryan Giggs, at 37 is still playing the game with the same fizzing enthusiasm and exuberance of youth, darting and dashing down the wing like a spritely 17 year old apprentice. Paul Scholes has finally packed it all in and decided that enough is enough. But Scholes was undoubtedly one of the finest footballers of this generation, the role model who conducted himself in the most honourable fashion.
Now of course the Old Trafford production line has churned out another nursery of technically sound and splendid ball players. The new orchestra has tuned up their instruments and United are now setting their sights on the land of gold, milk and honey. Nani, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Dimitri Berbatov, Chico Hernandez. Darren Gibson, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Nemandia Vidic, certainly one of the most impressive centre halves and Dimitri Berbatov are all groomed, polished and immacutely dressed for the big occasion.
In years gone by United have never been less than the thoroughbred professionals, a side of manners, proper propriety and honest professionalism. The wondrous shadow of Sir Matt Busby still follows United like a faithful dog. The names still sing in the ears of the older supporters. There was Bobby Charlton, who fired rockets rather than long distance shots, Dennis Law, long hair and shirt flapping in the Old Trafford mud but still the deadliest of goal scorers and most fabulously of all the one and only George Best, silky, magical and radically ahead of his time.
In another generation the doomed and tragic Busby Babes had their own adorable Adonises.United boasted Roger Byrne, Dennis Violett,David Pegg, the then coltish Bobby Charlton, the incredibly charismatic Tommy Taylor and the masterful Duncan Edwards. Edwards should have been England’s world class genius. Sadly none of the above lived to savour their golden hour and United fans everywhere are ready to face a new season with yet more renewed hope. Youth, it seems has always been on their side.
Manchester United face Arsenal in the traditional bear pit, still privately aggrieved at past injustices but always ready to kiss and make up. Sir Alex Ferguson will stick yet another pack of chewing gum into his mouth for 90 minutes grin and glower for the cameras and then occasionally break into an ironic smile.
Arsene Wenger of course will just hope against hope that he can just survive 90 minutes of torment, anxiety and paranoia. At one point during the opening game against Newcastle Wenger was seen to be furiously ruffling his wet hair and longing for some privacy and solitude. If only the rest of the world would just leave Wenger alone and let him think about anything but football. Sometimes managers must feel like hunted animals. petrified and terrified in case the gun goes off. Arsenal and Manchester United, oldest of rivals for many a decade are still big box office, appealing to all classes and classically entertaining. Let the contest begin.