Wenger urges hungry Gunners to seize control of Old Trafford
After so much frustration and humiliation, Arsene Wenger hopes tomorrow's game at Old Trafford will be different.
For the last seven years, Arsenal have suffered routine defeat to Manchester United, slipping from their place as real rivals into one of some inferiority. When they lost 8-2 at United two years ago, it felt like the emphatic end of any meaningful race between the two. But this game has a fresh feel again.
"It will be especially new," Wenger said yesterday. "It will be a bit strange."
Alex Ferguson, of course, is gone, and for the first time in his career Wenger will be facing a United team not led by his old adversary. For reasons that could well be connected to that, Arsenal are now seven places and eight points ahead of United.
With David Moyes there is a new feeling. Wenger, for the first time, is the senior figure. The Arsenal manager certainly thinks the change will work to his advantage, with Ferguson's old influence gone from the touchline.
Asked whether Old Trafford is a different place now, Wenger was puckish. "That is a question you should not ask me," he said, "but the referees."
Wenger, in jokey mood, even suggested there was a measure of Ferguson's influence: "Every year there is a company who makes the table reasoned without the referees' mistakes. So check that," he said.
Almost on dangerous ground, Wenger made clear that he believed referees always acted professionally, and that any influence they were under was more geographical than managerial.
"I think the referees were absolutely relaxed and happy to go there. I expect the referees to make the right decisions. I never have preconceived ideas," he said.
"Their pressure comes as well from the crowd when they go for every ball and put the referee under pressure. That's a bit more in the north than in the south."
The unfamiliarity, Wenger hopes, will belong to Moyes and not him. The new United manager has far less experience of collecting honours than Wenger, having won only the Second Division title in 2000 with Preston North End.
"He will be under more pressure than he was at Everton to deliver, certainly," Wenger said. "My pressure is consistent so that will maybe change a little bit. It depends as well how the season goes, how the games go, because sometimes games are more hectic, sometimes they're clean; it's never predictable."
Fighting for titles takes some learning. "Welcome to our world of pressure," he added.
United have not excelled so far this season; even at Old Trafford they have lost to West Brom and drawn with Southampton. Arsenal, meanwhile, have just gone to Borussia Dortmund and won. Wenger, certainly confident about their prospects, hopes they will play with confidence and authority tomorrow.
"We believe we can get a result. We go there like we go everywhere, to control the game and to win the game. We still think the best way to win at Old Trafford is to control the game, which means taking the ball, keeping the ball and having more possession than they do."
This game will be the next test of his team's growth, but they have defeated Liverpool and Dortmund in the last week and there is a new confidence at Arsenal that they can beat anyone.
They last won at Old Trafford over seven years ago, when Emmanuel Adebayor clinched a 1-0 victory with four minutes left, and there were still four old Invincibles playing – Jens Lehmann, Kolo Touré, Freddie Ljungberg and Gilberto Silva.
Since then, United have won five titles, one Champions League and two League Cups, while Arsenal have won nothing. This is a better Arsenal team than the one from September 2006, and with Mathieu Flamini returning tomorrow, the ambition is not misplaced.
"We are maybe a little less under pressure because we have a little advantage," Wenger said.
"But we have to use that in a positive way. Our hunger will be tested there. How much do we take advantage of this situation or do we just go there and say 'let's see what happens'?" (© Independent News Service)