Monday, April 27, 2009

A Rivalry rekindled

The wait is almost over. The intense rivalry of Arsenal vs Man Utd has graduated from the domestic game to take center stage on the European stage. For more than a decade, this match-up has captured the attention of followers of the English game for a variety of reasons -- the battles of the two managers, who are now the longest serving club managers not only in England but also in Europe, the match-ups of players involved and the intense passion of the fans. In a way, this match-up also presents a clash of two different ideologies as both teams have followed different paths over the last decade. Man Utd were debt free until they were taken over and overnight laden with debt yet they have continued splashing out money on whichever player they have wanted. On the other hand, Arsenal’s transfer spending was restricted because of the debt incurred as part of building the new stadium resulting in Wenger’s youth policy. Even though both clubs have a very rich history, both clubs are a complete contrast in their images as well -- Man Utd certainly have more hype around them not only because of past players but because of off-field promotional contracts. On the other hand, Arsenal have allowed their football to gain new supporters over the last decade as most recent fans can claim to have found love with the Gunners solely for footballing results, be it a player’s skill or the footballing style developed under Wenger.

Regardless of the paths the two clubs have undertaken over the last few years, on Wednesday night they will be standing on the same field side by side trying to achieve the same goal of making the Champions League final.

A changing of the guard that never happened

After Ferguson took almost 7 years to land his first title for Man Utd, he and Man Utd were able to enjoy an unchallenged monopoly on the Premier League title until Arsene Wenger came along. So it was not surprizing that Wenger’s immediate success with Arsenal brought on a rivalry. Plus, Wenger was the only manager to rightly question the lenient decisions that Man Utd kept getting. Unfortunately, after Arsenal’s double in 1998, they failed to narrowly win the title the following season, losing by one point over 38 games (Arsenal’s goal difference was just one behind Manchester’s) and failed to convert a last minute penalty to knock Man Utd out of the F.A Cup semi’s. Arsenal took a few steps backward the next two seasons before they finally managed to assert themselves in the 2001/02 season whey they completed an impressive double and went the entire season unbeaten away from home. The title was clinched in that memorable 1-0 away win at Old Trafford.

It seemed Arsenal were on the verge of dethroning Man Utd’s reign but they surrendered the title the following season to Man Utd by giving up some late goals to drop valuable points. Also that season, Rooney (already a Man Utd player in the making) ended Arsenal’s long unbeaten streak and Man Utd stopped Arsenal’s 55 goal scoring streak with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford. Arsenal managed to get a tiny revenge by winning 2-0 away to Manchester in the F.A Cup, a defeat that caused that mystery shoe to be kicked about in the Manchester dressing room, paving the path for their celebrity star to exit for Madrid.

Even though Arsenal had a historic season in 2003/04 going unbeaten in the league and fulfilling Wenger’s beliefs and comments from the 2003 season, they still could not bury Man Utd. Henry’s bullet of a shot gave Arsenal a lead in the league match-up but Arsenal failed to hold on and allowed Man Utd to leave with a 1-1 tie. A week later, Man Utd knocked Arsenal out of the F.A Cup and their players celebrated as if they had won the cup.

The following season, while Chelsea’s emergence was knocking Man Utd to third spot in the league, Ferguson’s men still provided a major hindrance to Arsenal by halting Arsenal’s unbeaten streak to 49. That defeat essentially derailed Arsenal’s title bid. Arsenal once again got a mini revenge by winning the F.A Cup that season on penalties over Man Utd.

Man Utd managed to rise up again and wrestled the title away from Chelsea while Arsenal once again took a few steps backwards. Still, Arsenal did their part to ensure Man Utd won’t have their way by doing the double over Man Utd in the 2006/07 season. But once again, Man Utd managed to come back the following season and easily knocked Arsenal out of the F.A Cup and defeated them in the league to finally halt Arsenal’s league ambitions. Still, with all their problems this season, Arsenal managed to inflict a defeat on Man Utd 2-1 and remarkably held on despite Man Utd’s 6 gifted minuted of injury time.

A goal or two would be just fine

In the 15 trips Arsenal have made to Old Trafford under Wenger, the record is:
Man Utd with 6 wins (outscoring Arsenal 20-2),
Arsenal with 4 wins, shutting out Man Utd by a 5-0 score,
and three draws.

In these games, Arsenal have scored more than one goal at Old Trafford on only one occasion, in that 2-0 F.A Cup win. Whereas, in the same time period Man Utd have scored two or more goals on atleast 6 occasions (Man Utd got more than 2 only one time in that 4-2 away win). Although, before Wenger came along Arsenal’s away record to Man Utd was worse as they had only won one away trip (1-0, ofcourse, in that league winning 1990/91 season) in a decade.

If one is too read something in these results, it is that when Arsenal have won at Old Trafford, they have had to keep a clean sheet. But this two legged Champions league tie presents a different context to this tussle because of the importance of away goals. In the previous league meetings with points at stake, the number of goals were not the important factor as victory by any score-line would do in landing the 3 points. Same goes for the F.A Cup tie where a win was essential to avoid a replay (note: the league Cup encounter at Old Trafford was a winner take all affair). But in the Champions league, the winner will ultimately be decided after 180 minutes (or more as needed, not including courtesy added ref time). Although, given the number of injuries that Arsenal have had, defending is not going to be their forte (not something that has been in recent years anyway) and they would have to attack while still managing to contain Man Utd. And moreover, as Villa and a certain North London team have shown recently, taking a lead at Old Trafford is much easier than trying to hold onto it.

In recent years Man Utd have tried to play an open style against Arsenal. Maybe it has something to do with Man Utd wanting to beat Arsenal by playing better football as even though Man Utd have all those trophies, some in the media still credit Arsenal as having beautiful football, although that tag has come under scrutiny over the last few seasons.

In the past, Arsenal have failed to get past their other two main domestic rivals in the Champions league as their encounters against Chelsea and Liverpool both came at the Quarter-final stage. But if Arsenal have to finally end their long elusive wait for the trophy, then what better way than to get past their biggest domestic rivals and the current holders en route to the final. And as Old Trafford has been a bother to past Arsenal teams, it is probably much better for Arsenal to get the away trip out of the way first.

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