Sir Alex Ferguson rode to Arsène Wenger's defence yesterday (which is a sentence that probably needs to be read more than once, not least for its novelty value) and agreed that the Arsenal manager had been harshly criticised for his side's faltering title challenge and exit from the Champions League.
Manchester United can, once and for all, extinguish the dying embers of Arsenal's season if they avoid defeat against them in the league at Old Trafford tomorrow, but Ferguson agreed with his old adversary's claim that he had been "slaughtered" this season for his failure to strengthen his squad.
"Of course it's unfair," Ferguson said. "It's not easy buying players in January as I've said time and time again. There's not a lot you can do then. They lost [Abou] Diaby for a while, Denilson, [Tomas] Rosicky, [Robin] Van Persie and, I'm telling you, you cannot win games consistently without your best team.
"We've suffered that way. In the 1998 season when we played the crucial game against Arsenal at Old Trafford, which won the League for them, you could not pick my team. We had six or seven players injured. If you don't get your best players it's difficult to get the best results. It's not just having the best players and the best squad it's being able to change and have that freshness. We took that risk – well I don't think it was a risk – but we took a certain risk on Wednesday night [against Roma] in changing our team around because I've got the squad to do it."
Those final seven words, Arsenal supporters would argue, are the crucial ones. Strength and depth and, to borrow Wenger's own word "maturity" (ie experience) has been lacking at times. However the manager himself, while launching a trenchant defence of his approach, was seething about what he regards as the lack of justice that has been meted out by referees.
"This team has been punished in the last seven weeks more so than any team I have seen in England since I arrived 11 years ago," he said, which was quite a sweeping claim to make and one that revealed the extent of his frustration. "Every single decision has gone against this team in every single game recently. That's why, for me, there would be no better [title] victory than this one if we were to do it. This would be my most satisfying."
Wenger went even further. Winning the league this year, he said, "would be the greatest achievement of my career because we are swimming against the stream at the moment but I still believe this team can produce it. For us the game on Sunday is the game of the season. If we do not win this game we have no chance."
A particular cause for resentment was the manner of Arsenal's Champions League exit, which came just 24 hours before United eased past Roma, with Wenger accusing Ryan Babel of winning a penalty by "doing the old trick of the striker, he pulled his [Kolo Touré's] shirt and went down. He knew he was going nowhere". Added to the denial of a penalty to Alexander Hleb in the first-leg and Wenger was adamant he had been cheated. The exit, of course, led to analysis of Arsenal's season with criticism of Wenger's refusal to spend – he netted a transfer surplus of £20m last summer with the club revealing there is a cash mountain of £74m that he can dip into. Of that Wenger said: "I don't mind that I'm questioned. I would prefer that I'm questioned than the players. I can handle that."
Such is his "fantastic belief" that Wenger claimed that he will not be making "wholesale changes" in the summer, rather he will rely on the development of players such as Theo Walcott, Johan Djourou, Nicklas Bendtner, Denilson and the inclusion of Carlos Vela, currently on loan at Osasuna. "I will buy but not too much," he said. "My priority is to keep this team together because we are still young especially in some departments of the team. If we can add one player we will do it, not one in each department, just one experienced player."
It should be remembered that Ferguson, having won the title last season, then went out and bought Owen Hargreaves, Carlos Tevez, Nani and Anderson. Still the United manager would have it that he has more pressure on his shoulders to succeed than Wenger who, if Arsenal fail this season, will have gone three years without winning a trophy. "You would tell me quicker than you tell Arsène," Ferguson said of whether he would be vilified for such a record. "It tells you how hard it is to win the Premier League. It's a tough street."
But it's one that Wenger still believes Arsenal can come out of ahead of the rest. "I can't understand people who say the team's season is over," he said. "Why is it over? We are not too far behind. It depends on what happens on Sunday – if we win then we can win the title. What is at stake is the work of a whole year. Do you really think that we will go to Manchester United thinking that our season is over? That would be ridiculous."
The Chosen One: Wenger is after 'one experienced player' this summer – but which one?
*Hatem Ben Arfa
French international left-winger (of Tunisian descent). Plays for Lyons but wants to leave. Wenger is an avowed fan but would have to pay at least £12m to secure the 21-year-old's services.
Ben Arfa's team-mate, but not his friend. The French international is the kind of striker Arsenal crave but the attention he has got in recent months may have cooled their interest. Lyons would want at least £20m.
Arsenal have, along with a number of clubs, been watching the 20-year-old Uruguayan international central defender who is currently on loan at Recreativo Huelva from Villarreal. Would cost around £10m.
Could be a surprise one although the 21-year-old left-midfielder is desperate to leave Newcastle United and wants to move to London. The Frenchman has been linked with Spurs and would cost around £5m.
The French international was desperate to move to Arsenal last summer before joining Chelsea where he has thus far conspicuously failed to settle. Would command a fee of around £15m.