The Old Rivalry Given A New Face

by Sam Wheatley

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

Last week, on a Sunday I believe, I was enjoying a charming exchange on Twitter between Rio Ferdinand and Jack Wilshere. The pair appeared to be making plans to hook up the next time Rio was in London, which, by my calculations, would be now. Add to this the perceptibly maturing relationship between Ferguson and Wenger and we could be in for a pretty tepid affair on Monday night. Or not.

Patrice Evra has been out shooting his mouth off, to all intents and purposes calling Arsenal a bit rubbish, a ‘training centre’ and a crisis club. Arsenal are top of the Premier League, in the Carling Cup Semi-final and through to the knockout stages of the Champions League – a competition that Arsenal have been playing in consistently since 1998. Admittedly potless for five years, there is still not great cause for concern as it is a team that has come close in that time frame.

Bacary Sagna has come out to defend Arsenal with a level-headed but ultimately anti-inflammatory approach, saying that “that is his [Evra’s] way of doing things, but it does not affect me in any way”. And nor may it – depending on where Samir Nasri is deployed on Monday night, Sagna may scarcely face his France team mate as the Manchester United left-back may be pre-occupied. But it is still hard to see where the personal battles that brought previous Arsenal/United clashes to life will come from.

Not since Roy Keane decided to turn an admirably successful playing career into a stuttering, failing managerial career and Patrick Vieira opted to chase money around the globe have there been any specific rivalries. There was that time when Gary Neville kicked several very hard lumps out of José Antonio Reyes, but that was very shortly after Vieira’s departure and United may not have been sure of Arsenal’s decline. According to Evra, they are now convinced.

It is also true that Arsenal haven’t beaten Manchester United in the league since November 2008, the season after the last time the North London club had been sitting top of the league before it all fell apart against Birmingham, when Eduardo broke his leg, Clichy gave away a soft penalty and William Gallas threw a petulant strop, throwing the dressing room into disarray. United went on to win the league that season and the season after.

Whilst Ferdinand and Wilshere heart-warmingly ‘mating up’ to each other last week on Twitter, it is the French contingent in which we may have to look for personal rivalries. Nasri is not a particularly popular figure, for all of his talent, amongst Les Bleus’ playing staff. It was allegedly an argument involving Thierry Henry’s seat on the team coach, William Gallas and Samir Nasri that was seen as symptomatic of at least part of the rift in the French camp that saw France do so badly in South Africa. Despite Laurent Blanc’s best attempts, it is still unknown to what extent relationships between the elite of France’s footballers have been repaired. It is no surprise then that Evra’s comments were rebuffed by Sagna.

As for Ferguson’s comments regarding Wenger, it is important to note that despite Ferguson’s apparent attempts to accommodate the Arsenal manager, the wily old Scot and master of mind games is in fact reminding Wenger that the United faithful will still be aiming abuse at him. It is the thorn on the rose, if you will; the joke buzzer in the handshake.

It is not so much that the fierceness of the rivalry between the two clubs has changed, more it has metamorphosed into something else – something much less easily digestible for followers of the game. Arsenal were dismal against Partizan in midweek but managed to win the game, uncharacteristically. United haven’t been setting the world alight this season, but both are in desirable positions in the league. Monday’s match may be more like a game of chess than the battle scenes of old, but the rivalry still exists and we should all be anticipating Monday night’s game with great expectations.

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