Thursday, February 14, 2008

The F.A Cup tie

Saturday's 5th round F.A Cup tie at Old Trafford brings together not only the current league's #1 and #2 teams but also the two best teams in the history of the F.A Cup.

The two titans:
Man Utd have the most F.A Cup wins with 11, followed closely by Arsenal's 10 victories. Both have also have finished runner's up on 7 occasions each, with Man Utd finishing second best to Chelsea in last year's final.

Ever since Arsene Wenger took over Arsenal, they have been THE dominant team in the F.A Cup. In the 11+ years under Wenger, Arsenal have reached the F.A Cup final 5 times out of the last 11 years, winning 4 titles. No team can match this result in the F.A Cup over the last decade. Man Utd on the other hand have reached 4 F.A Cup finals since 1997 and won on two occasions. Under Ferguson's 21+ years, Man Utd have reached a total of 8 finals and have won 5 trophies.

Arsenal's Freddie Ljungberg also holds the joint record of scoring in two successive finals with goals in the 2001 and 2002 finals. Freddie's goal in the 2-0 win over Chelsea (in 2002's double year) was an absolutely beautiful curling shot.

Arsenal and Manchester United have also been the two best teams in the 15 year history of the Premier League. So needless to say, there have been plenty of fiery encounters between the two and numerous stars who have delighted their supporters while frustrating the opponents. The league and F.A Cup ties have featured plenty of debating points ranging from kicks, shoves, punches, red cards, penalties, dives, beautiful goals and even a pizza toss. But the rivalry would not be what it is today if not for the two managers.

You talking to me?

For two managers to develop a rivalry, they have to be employed long enough for their respective teams. In that regards Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have had plenty of time to get acquainted with each other. Currently, the two are not only the longest serving managers of a team in England but also in Europe. This was not the case three years ago when Guy Roux was easily the longest serving manager of any European team. But after leading Auxerre for a remarkable 44 years, Roux finally stepped down in 2005.

While Ferguson and Wenger have not been reduced to physical blows yet, they have exchanged plenty of memorable verbal battles. It all started in early 1997 when Wenger uttered the following words: "It's wrong the programme is extended so Man Utd can rest and win everything".

But Ferguson decided he needed to make his usual 'intelligent' reply:"He's a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football"

Ferguson was always annoyed that Wenger never stayed for a post-game drink with him and that Wenger never gave Man Utd the respect Ferguson thought they deserved. So it is not a surprize he said this about Arsenal's 2002 double winning team:
"They are scrappers who rely on belligerence - we are the better team"

Wenger's perfect weighted reply was truly memorable: "Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home".

And then there was that infamous Old Trafford match in 2003 when a little shoving took place after the final whistle. Even a year after the incident, Ferguson talked about the game: "They got away with murder. What the Arsenal players did was the worst I have witnessed in sport"

Wenger summed up Ferguson's intentions perfectly: "Maybe it would be better if you have put us up against a wall and shot us all. I hope that he will calm down".
Yes that would certainly have made Fergie happy.

No wonder the Oct 24, 2004 game was such a high octane kick and cheat fest. But not according to Fergie: "In the tunnel Wenger was criticising my players, calling them cheats. Arsenal are the worst losers of all time"

Wenger's reply: "I will never answer any questions any more about this man. In England you have a good phrase. It is 'bringing the game into disrepute'"

In the last few years, there have been some other remarks by Wenger. For example, Wenger did confirm that when he runs into Ferguson at the airport, atleast they don't tear the place apart: "When we meet in airports we don't fight. Those meetings are even funny"

The following Wenger remark was directed towards Fergie: "I'm ready to take the blame for all the problems of English football if that is what he wants"

Maybe Ferguson will say in the future that since Arsenal sign so many non-English players, the team's scouts spend so much time flying about and are destroying the environment. Climate Change might be Arsenal's fault!

Recap of those old games:
The last F.A Cup meeting between Arsenal and Man Utd was in the 2005 F.A Cup final when Arsenal somehow managed a win. Despite being dominated for the entire game, Arsenal survived until the penalty shoot-out when Jens Lehmann saved a kick from Scholes and captain Patrick Vieira scored with his final kick for Arsenal (sniff sniff) for the 5-4 shoot-out win. The game was also the first F.A Cup final to have been decided on kicks. The footballing gods were kind to Arsenal that day feeling they had to make things right after Arsenal were hard done by earlier in the season when a fake penalty gave Man Utd a win and halted Arsenal's 49 game unbeaten run.

In 2004, Arsenal lost 1-0 to Man Utd in a F.A Cup semi in one of the toughest fixture week for the Gunners. A week before the semi, Arsenal were held to a 1-1 tie with Man Utd. And a few days after the 1-0 loss, Arsenal met Chelsea in the Champions league 2nd league tie before a title deciding match against Liverpool at Highbury. Seriously, who came up with that fixture week? A computer corrupted with a Man Utd program? Unfortunately, Ferguson could not be reached for comments regarding this manner.

Then there was the Old Trafford tie 5 years ago on Sat, Feb 15 2003 when once again the soccer gods aided Arsenal when a deflected Edu free-kick and a Wiltord goal gave Arsenal a 2-0 win. Giggs missed a gapping net that day and that win meant that Arsenal made up for an earlier 2-0 league loss at Old Trafford, in a game which ended Arsenal's 55 game scoring streak. Ofcourse, had Pires’ lob not gone a few inches wide earlier in that 2-0 league loss, it might have been a different game.

Giggs miss in that 2003 F.A Cup tie balanced the books so to speak because in 1999, he scored a super goal to beat Arsenal in a hard fought F.A Cup semi-tie. A penalty save that day in the 90th minute proved to be a turning point for a Man Utd win.

So...on to Sat

A packed crowd at Old Trafford would not care that Wenger believes the F.A Cup is third priority this season for Arsenal as the Man Utd fans cheer their team on. And given how the Man Utd players have wildly celebrated their wins over Arsenal in recent years (especially 2004's F.A Cup semi win & the league game in Oct 2004), beating Arsenal means a lot to them. Every time a newspaper or a commentator mentions 'beautiful football' and 'Arsenal' in the same sentence, certain Manchester players must get irked because the first comments made by some ManU players after the 2-2 league draw earlier this season was regarding Arsenal's 'so called beautiful football'.

Arsenal's growing injury list will mean many players will be unable to partake in Sat's game such as Djourou, van Persie, Diaby, Almunia, Denilson, Rosicky, Walcott (unsure?), Clichy, Sagna and Senderos. Besides the injuries, the team selection might also be altered keeping in mind next week's Champions league game. On Man Utd's side, you can be sure that Rooney will play as he loves scoring against Arsenal. He has found the net 3 times as a Man Utd player and 2 further times as an Everton player against Arsenal. Ofcourse, he scored his first league goal against Arsenal as well, ending Arsenal's 29 game unbeaten run. In recent years, Ronaldo and Scholes have also found the net three times each against Arsenal.

Thierry Heny looooved scoring against Manchester. He scored 8 times against them (all in the league), including a bullet of a goal in the unbeaten season, a fantastic looping goal in 2001 and ofcourse that winning goal in a 2-1 league win last season. That 90th minute goal was the second last goal Henry scored in an Arsenal shirt and the last time he scored a winning goal for the Gunners. With recent reports that Henry has been in touch with Adebayor and giving him advice might hopefully mean that one day Ade takes up Henry's goal-scoring record against Manchester. Ofcourse, Ade already has a winning goal against Manchester in a 1-0 win last season. But it is unsure if he will start on Sat.

No matter who starts, it will be an electric atmosphere. Not one for the faint hearted and that even includes fans following the game via tv or the internet!

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