“I turned many, many, many jobs down to stay here, and face the challenge when we build the stadium,” Arsene Wenger offered his perspective in the pre-match press conference ahead of his final showdown against Manchester United as the Arsenal manager, when asked about the job offer from Old Trafford in the summer of 2002.
Not only did Wenger refuse to switch clubs, but Sir Alex Ferguson stayed at Manchester United for another glorious decade, with both managers writing their own respective chapters in history. On Sunday, Wenger would face both his & Ferguson’s arch nemesis, the Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho who often got the better of the two stalwarts of the Premier League era, in one ultimate contest.
A match of barely any significance when it comes to deciding the Premier League title or next season’s UEFA Champions League qualification, Sunday’s contest will merely be a footnote in football’s history but Wenger’s imminent departure from Arsenal at the end of the season will allow fans of both clubs to don their hats of nostalgia one final time.
The ‘Theatre of Dreams’ has been one of those mythical stadiums for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal career where he has experienced stupendous highs and tremendous lows – from the Overmars-orchestrated win in 1998 which helped Wenger clinch his first Premier League title, to the 8-2 humiliation in 2011 which gave the ‘Wenger Out’ movement a focal point. The Frenchman has traversed every aspect of the emotional spectrum at the Old Trafford.
The latest encounter, however, will bring forth a challenge of different sorts for Wenger. As he aims to register a third victory in nineteen meetings with Jose Mourinho, the Gunners boss is also aware of their difficult trip to Wanda Metropolitano next week and how he needs his key players fresh for the second leg of the UEFA Europa League semi-finals. A win against Atletico Madrid, who went back with a crucial away goal, is of utmost importance for Arsenal’s near future and understandably, Wenger’s focus would be on the same but there is no denying that the Frenchman would love to get one over his Manchester United counterpart.
“There are little things where it would be obviously better without them, some gestures, some words would be better without it. I feel better now without it, no doubts about it,” Mourinho admitted, acknowledging his role in the cantankerous relationship shared between the two. From exchanging heated words in press conferences to resorting to tussles on the touchline, which resulted in repercussions for both, Wenger and Mourinho have shared an intriguing dynamic for the last fifteen years.
Two managers with two completely disparate footballing philosophies – one the ever pragmatic, the other the true idealist – Mourinho dubbed Wenger to be ‘a specialist in failure’ while Wenger termed his opponent as being ‘disconnected with reality’. Yet there is a thread of parallelism between the two managers, for they evoke similar reactions (of fanaticism as well as agony) from fans of the clubs they manage because of their steadfast belief in their respective ideologies of how ‘the beautiful game’ should be played.
From a tactical perspective, United are expected to set up in their usual 4-3-3 with Jesse Lingard, the man behind United’s win at Emirates earlier this season and former Gunners star Alexis Sanchez flanking Romelu Lukaku up front. United’s midfield may have a field day with Arsenal’s youngsters as Wenger is likely to rest the likes of Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere.
While Henrikh Mkhitaryan is racing time to get fit against his former employers, perhaps Arsenal’s most potent attacking threat of the night would be Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Gabon forward has had six goals in eight Premier League appearances for Arsenal, but this would be his biggest test in England for the Jose Mourinho-managed side has only conceded eight goals in seventeen home league fixtures this season, losing only on two occasions.
There is hardly any doubt regarding United’s status as the favourites in this battle, but as much reluctant as Wenger is to get into ‘a final confrontation’ with Mourinho, the Frenchman won’t be hesitant to wield his claws to achieve a victory, should the need arise. The mood at the Old Trafford on Sunday is likely to be earnest, unlike in previous years, when ridicules and derisions were hurled at the Arsenal manager.
“I don’t know what kind of reception I will get. I will be focused on winning the game. There have been some great battles in 22 years. If I get a good reception I will take it,” a circumspect Wenger told reporters as he prepared to draw down the curtains on two of the fiercest rivalries during his time in England – against Manchester United and Jose Mourinho, once again reiterating the fact which helped him earn respect of legions of football fans across the globe, that “Arsenal is the love” of his life.
Updated Date: Apr 29, 2018 13:07:03 IST