Last updated : 21 January 2007 By Ed


The Indie:

Oh what a feast, oh what a tasty delight, oh what - given the presence of the Swede Henrik Larsson - a smorgasbord. Today Arsenal face Manchester United for the 200th time in a competitive match and, for Arsène Wenger, the ingredients have all been gathered for what should be a classic encounter. A signature dish, if you like.

Food will be associated with these two teams for as long as the infamous Battle of the Buffet, the pizza and soup-throwing chaos that followed United's fierce resolve to end Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run in the autumn of 2004, is remembered.

Wenger remembers it well and needs little prompting. "They stopped us from playing," he says simply of the brutal encounter that he acknowledges represented the lowest point of his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. That negativity will not happen this afternoon. Both sides, Wenger claims, will come out and play attacking football. It is their recipe for success.

When Manchester United come to town, every home supporter walks towards the ground with an extra spring in his or her step. There may be a certain apprehension there too, from fans who know this is a fixture that rarely brings maximum points. Yet what a day to remember when it does. And even if the game is lost, they are likely to have seen skilful opposing players sent out with a bold, attacking approach rather than packing the midfield and hoping for a lucky break.

The Emirates has endured plenty of the latter approach in its short history, suffering additional frustration when negative tactics have allowed the visitors to sneak away with a draw. So even if it goes against the grain for serious rivals, Ars-enal should welcome Sir Alex Ferguson's side on their first visit to the new ground today.

They arrive not only as Premiership leaders, but as the scorers of no fewer than 52 goals, including 14 in the five matches since suffering unexpected (and undeserved) defeat at West Ham on 17 December. To the manager's delight, those goals have been spread throughout the squad, as he admits that in seasons past the team were too dependent on Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Sunday Times:

With due respect to football's version of Big Brother that is the power struggle at Stamford Bridge, the highlight of Grand Slam Weekend, as Sky TV have dubbed it, has to be this afternoon's clash of the two most attractive teams in the Premiership.

The league table doesn't lie, not at this stage of the season anyway, and Manchester United are clearly the best side in the country. On their day, however, Arsenal have no peers, and if this is to be one of those occasions the capacity crowd at the Emirates stadium and armchair audience are in for a treat. There have been some unedifying scraps between these two great rivals, but the old antagonists — Keane and Vieira, Keown and Van Nistelrooy, Wright and Schmeichel — have gone, and in their place are footballers whose inclination is to play the Beautiful Game, rather than to win ugly.

Fifteen points separate the teams, yet for the purist they operate on the same stratospheric plane. United, with their two wingers, are more adventurous, Arsenal geared to attack on the break, but the end product is strikingly similar: an average of roughly two goals per game.

United have been disappointing for the past three seasons, in each of which they finished well off the pace, and not even their most fervent supporters expected them to fare much better this time after the departure of their principal goalscorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy. The signing of only Michael Carrick during the summer was scarcely conducive to unbridled optimism.

So why the dramatic improvement? At this stage 12 months ago United trailed Chelsea by 14 points. There are a number of reasons that, viewed together, make it rather less of a surprise. Foremost is the return of the admirable Paul Scholes, who missed most of last season with impaired vision. Scholes restored the balance to a midfield that was lightweight after the loss of Roy Keane. Darren Fletcher, Kieran Richardson, Alan Smith and John O' Shea were all found wanting, and Ryan Giggs was wasted in a central role. There are other contributory factors. At the back, the two signings made a year ago, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, took time to adapt to English football and looked decidedly dodgy at first. To Sir Alex Ferguson's relief, that worry is long gone and Evra has proved to be a more accomplished left-back than Gabriel Heinze, while Vidic is now the perfect, teak-tough foil for the more elaborate Rio Ferdinand in central defence.

In midfield, Carrick has yet to convince as an £18.6m player, whatever that is in these inflationary days, but he has provided some of the metronomic tidiness that was needed, allowing Giggs to return to the left, where he has rolled back the years, evoking memories of his spellbinding best.

Even more impressive has been Cristiano Ronaldo, who looked like a one-trick pony for much of last season.

The World Cup winker has responded to the booing that greets his every touch at away grounds in considerable style, scoring 13 times already. Ronaldo's improved return has eased the burden on a forward line that seemed likely to be short of goals at the outset, with Van Nistelrooy gone, and it is to Ferguson's credit that he galvanised others, such as Ronaldo, Louis Saha (eight in 19 league appearances) and the reborn Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (six in 11) to compensate, before pulling off the coup that brought Henrik Larsson on loan. The sum of all these parts has seen United hardly take a backward step since trouncing Fulham 5-1 on opening day. To which Arsenal will counter: "Oh yes they have."

Arsène Wenger's precocious side won 1-0 at Old Trafford in September, a result typical of a frustrating season in which they have beaten Liverpool three times with ease, scoring 12 goals in the process, while contriving to lose to West Ham, Fulham and Sheffield United. The conclusion is that, given time and space, they can pass their way through the very best, but the kids aren't up for an in-your-face battle.

Sundayt Telegraph:

Even Arsene Wenger had to smile at the idea of trying to kick Manchester United out of their stride that promises to take teh Premiership back north. While conceding that traces of bitterness lingered from the October day at Old Trafford in 2004 when adverse refereeing decisions conspired with the roughing-up of Jose Antonio Reyes to deny his club the completion of a 50-match unbeaten run, the Arsenal manager said: "We don't have the team to do that – not with Alexander Hleb, Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky! Anyway, I am not interested in derailing United. I just want to win. I just want this team of ours to progress."

Anyway, Wenger acknowledged as he contemplated this afternoon's match at the Emirates Stadium, making no attempt to pretend defeat would not extinguish the last of his team's hopes of catching the leaders, times had changed – and his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson mellowed – since that turbulent Manchester occasion. In fact, the times were already changing as United's crowd celebrated a 2-0 victory, because a fortnight later an Arjen Robben goal against Everton at Stamford Bridge put Chelsea and their new Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho on top of the table, where they were to remain for not only the rest of that season but the whole of the next. Maybe the battle for second place brought Wenger and Ferguson together. Maybe, as dedicated winners with an eye for the game's arts, they were never quite as far apart as we liked to imagine.

"Yes," said Wenger, "we have a lot of things in common. One is passion – for winning, and for the game. You cannot last in this job if you lack passion. And I like watching his team, because they try to play." The tension between them had "certainly" been at its highest in October 2004. "But it wasn't just that they stopped us from playing and were very physical. Decisions went against us and it was a day when we were going for the 50. But I don't know what Ferguson told them before the match. Or whether it was Roy Keane [United's captain and leader at the time] or somebody else."



"I said at the start of this season that this team has to win, every team at United has to win and we are doing that this year. Certainly there are good signs and we have a good strong squad, which I think is getting better in terms of experience and confidence. Winning does that. There are good signs about the team, good energy, good speed. There are good ages in the team, good ability, and I have no fears about looking ahead with them.

"Our form is good but there have been examples of us being charitable, at West Ham and Newcastle [where Manchester United lost and drew respectively], and these are danger signs for us. We have to make sure nothing like that happens on a regular basis over these last 15 matches. Both teams will drop points, no question about that, and the name of the game is consistency."

* "There's nothing wrong with Wayne.

"In a lot of cases it has been down to bad luck. He just needs a little break. I'm not concerned because I know it will come. He's working his socks off, the boy. He's had spells of twos and threes but he needs to get into that one-goal-a-game thing that strikers can do. If he does that, it will make a big, big difference to our run-in."

* "Of course it would be very difficult to do the Treble again because in 1999 we had a lot of luck and all the players stayed fit," said the United boss. "But ability-wise, yes, I think we ave a chance.

"Maybe the change from Highbury is having an effect. It was a very claustrophobic stadium and the fans were right on top of you.

"Highbury was one of the smallest pitches in England, so maybe teams felt inhibited in trying to play their normal game because Arsenal do press the ball well on their own ground. But this is the same size as ours at Old Trafford so it is a bigger pitch than Highbury.

"Maybe it is taking time for Arsenal to adjust to it and the fact they have had five draws in 11 games is telling its own story."


"It looks 80 per cent that it will be decided between the two [Manchester United and Chelsea.

"But there is 20 per cent still there. It's still not over. Today everyone will say Man United, but it can change very quickly. This is the weekend. If Man United beat Arsenal, Arsenal are out of it definitely. There is no way back.

"Yes, I like to watch them because they like to play."


"The young players look to have the ingredient to be a winner.

"That is what makes the difference

"It is what made the difference with that generation of Scholes, Giggs and Beckham. They won championships - once, twice, three and four times - and still were hungry. Because they were winners."

Talking here about his recent touchline antics:

"I just sometimes feel that unusual behaviour can wake up things, and I certainly had unusual behaviour in some games.

"As a manager you can only survive or live with how you feel at that moment. You cannot cheat the players. They are intelligent and are with you every day and see what kind of mood you are in. You cannot cheat with your attitude. At that time I behaved as I was, not as I wanted to be.

"What made me angry was to lose at Fulham, to lose at West Ham, the way we lost. We didn't test them really. We had superficial superiority but that's not good enough. But when you want to develop a team, a young team, you have matches like that.

"What changed is that you feel you are missing something in the games to win the games. When you watch games long enough, you know you will play well and have more of the ball but in the end you will not win because something is missing. And that can only be that bit of extra-special solidarity, unity, that burning desire to win. We've all seen enough games to say, 'OK, it's a good team, but is it a winning team?' And in October, November, we lost games that were difficult to accept to lose."

Of Fergie:

"Over the years you have probably been more aware of our differences but we have a lot of things in common as well, and one of those is the passion for winning and a passion for the game. You do not last in our job if you don't have the passion."

Of Larsson:

"I'm amazed he still can cope with the physical demands of the game because he's not an especially physical player. He's so intelligent. When he played against Aston Villa in the Cup he gave a demonstration of how simple the game of a striker can be. You do not need to fight or be strong. Every single move was so well-timed, so intel-ligent, it was a demonstration."

Van der Sar:

"It does not matter whether you are 21 or older, these matches make your heart tick a little faster.

"Arsenal play good football and it should be a nice game.

"They have the ability to score goals. We have to concentrate and keep a tight line.

"The good thing is we are doing better than last season. That's all we can ask for after trailing Chelsea for so long.

"When people are chasing you it is a much better situation.

"This is what we worked hard towards in pre-season and the 23 league games we have played so far.

"We now have to see it out over the last 15 matches."

Giggs on MUTV:

"We are happy with our position but we need to keep that consistency going.

"We gave Chelsea too much of a start in previous seasons.

"There are some difficult games coming up but those are the ones you want to be involved in.

"It is important we do not spoil all the good work we have put in place by dropping silly points.

"The competition for places is brilliant. That is what we want with all the games coming up.

"You need as many fit players as you can. The squad is looking looking well and it is strong.

"You have experienced internationals coming off the bench trying to make an impact.

"It is no coincidence our form has been so good.

"The last two to three seasons we had at times maybe 14-15 players to choose from because of injuries and that did not help us."


"Losing in Cardiff to Arsenal was definitely the worst.

"We dominated but still managed to lose it. We were all to blame because of the amount of chances we created but managed to miss.

"Believe me, losing is a horrible feeling. After any game you don't get to sleep until two at the earliest. But replaying some games you've lost, you don't get to sleep until four or five."


"For years Paul Scholes has been one of the best players in the Premiership.

"He's incredible. He's come back into the team after his eye injury and he's playing so well, like he's never been away.

"He has always been under-rated throughout his career. He's a team player, a one and two-touch footballer who makes good decisions on the pitch and makes his team play.

"I don't understand why he has never won the player of the year. A guy like that should have won it long ago."



Arsenal have doubts over Robin van Persie who has an ankle problem, while midfielder Gilberto Silva is suspended.

Emmanuel Adebayor and Mathieu Flamini are in line to deputise and Emmanuel Eboue is pressing hard for a recall. Johan Djourou has a hamstring strain.

Manchester United have no fresh injury worries for the trip south and defender Wes Brown is back from a virus.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is pushing for a start but Wayne Rooney and Henrik Larsson look set to lead the line.

Arsenal (from): Lehmann, Eboue, Toure, Senderos, Clichy, Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Rosicky, Henry, Van Persie, Almunia, Adebayor, Baptista, Diaby, Hoyte, Aliadiere.

Manchester United (from): Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs, Rooney, Larsson, Saha, Solskjaer, Park, Brown, Heinze, O'Shea, Fletcher.


Mainly sunny today in London and 9°C according to the Beeb.