James Lawton: Fergie just can’t shake off Wenger
The weight of achievement may have swung heavily in favour of Sir Alex Ferguson but even at the apex of his power last season, when his Manchester United were striding to the Champions' League and Premier League titles, he could not forget Arsene Wenger.
He could not assign him to the wrecking ball of his own relentless success because Wenger, as we have seen once again in a week of stupendous European action, has an imperishable quality that separates the truly great football men from the rest of the field.
You cannot shake off Wenger. He keeps coming with his perfectionist zeal. He is only part football manager. Some of him is also pure missionary.
He has, like Ferguson, something that outstrips, and ultimately soars above, the mere mechanics of shrewd football management.
At the core of everything he does is a passionate belief that the game must be played in a certain way. It does not ignore the need for power, for defensive organisation — though some would say at times it has a tendency to put faith before pragmatism — but subservient to all else is the imperative that there must be panache and touch and a vision of football at its most creative because if isn't that, if it isn't touched with the potential for beauty, how much is it really worth?
Even when their season fell apart last spring, Wenger's men had made an indelible imprint. They had courted the possibility of outrageous success.
Now, with Cesc Fabregas restored, Wenger again stands in the path of another blockbusting Ferguson season.
If Arsenal beat Chelsea and United account for Everton and reach the FA Cup Final, they will meet four times in the next month or so, twice in the Champions League semi-final and once in a league match at Old Trafford which could well prove decisive to Ferguson's hopes of an unprecedented sweep of all the trophies available to him.
Ferguson v Wenger is again the most compelling rivalry in all of football. It is a dazzling endorsement of football's highest values.
It says that if men like Ferguson and Wenger are allowed the freedom to impose those values, if they can see the evolution of their teams as unending works of progress over which they exert unbroken control, certain results can be guaranteed.
When Cristiano Ronaldo drove home his perfect strike, when he produced such dream-like timing and power for a goal which had more impact than any in Europe since Zinedine Zidane volleyed Real Madrid to final victory seven years ago, you were reminded of Ferguson's devotion to, and patience when dealing with, the greatest of individual talent.
Heaven knows, how many times Ferguson has privately railed at the attitudes of his superstar this last season, indeed his recent criticism of the player suggested his tolerance wasn't infinite, but the United manager has long displayed the value of taking the best of a vital player, and living with the rest.
Wenger's forbearance in the matter of Emanuel Adebayor stands at least some comparison. How many times has Wenger been tempted to wash his hands of what seemed like the terminal dwindling of commitment from a man who promised to so seamlessly replace the departed Thierry Henry? Yet the investment was maintained because Wenger knew that it could deliver dramatic dividends and now we see something of the old Adebayor.
Who could deny the uplifting surge that comes with the prospect of their latest hand-to-hand engagements?
We know almost certainly there will be sour and bitter moments. But we also know that once again the football heavens are within reach. It is the natural consequence of the highest football ambition. Or, put another way, it is what tends to happen when Ferguson and Wenger renew the oldest — and arguably the best — battle English football is ever likely to know.
Ferguson v Wenger in quotes
"Arsene Wenger disappoints me when he is reluctant to give Manchester United credit. I don't think his carping has made a good impression on the other Premiership managers." Sir Alex Ferguson, July 2000
"Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home." Wenger, May 2002
“Wenger has been in Japan. He doesn't know anything about English football. He's at a big club; well, Arsenal used to be big. He should keep his mouth shut, firmly shut." Ferguson, July 1997
"[Ferguson's] only weakness is that he thinks he doesn't have one." Arsene Wenger, March 2002
"I'm ready to take the blame for all the problems in English football if that is what he wants." Wenger, Nov 2007
"Wenger has been the longest survivor in terms of rivalry. With Arsene staying as long as he has [the rivalry] has persisted. No-one has survived as long." Ferguson, April 2009