Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are best of enemies
It was a long hop, an easy chance for Sir Alex Ferguson to reach through the debris of a dreadful few weeks to tell his oldest combatant that the two of them are still in all this together.
Had this week's events in the Nou Camp, the Manchester United manager was asked yesterday, given him sympathy for Arsene Wenger?
The received wisdom about the two men's rapprochement of recent years, crowned as it was by the sight of them co-hosting a|Q & A session at Wembley's Great Hall a few years back, told us that the answer might be ‘yes'.
But that's the danger of drawing simple conclusions about the years having a mellowing effect on Ferguson.
“I had sympathy for myself,” he retorted. “I didn't have an easy week myself! Dearie me.”
Sympathy flows through Ferguson when the situation demands it. He provided a message of commiseration yesterday through his club's Japanese language website for those caught up in the tsunami.
He personally telephoned his club's doctor when a cameraman collapsed at one of his press conferences a few weeks back.
But sympathy for Arsene Wenger on the eve of an FA Cup quarter-final which could leave United floored by their first three-match losing sequence in a decade? No chance.
Wenger, remember, has been testing the elasticity of this old relationship all season. It was he who suggested last month that United had been “lucky” to make it through 21 Premier League games unbeaten and were “solid defensively more than offensively.” (Correct on both counts.)
It was also he who suggested the quality of the Old Trafford pitch contributed to Arsenal's 1-0 defeat there in January. (Incorrect: Arsenal were pitiful.)
Ferguson doesn't forget comments like that. But we should never forget that the Ferguson froideur tends to disappear when a team no longer poses a threat and after six years of Wenger posing virtually none, he has dragged himself back to the plateau again, with all the precipitation that always brings from Manchester.
An FA Cup quarter-final today's match might be, but the spoils also include a huge psychological boost in the progression towards a title denouement in which Ferguson believes his side and Wenger's are now the last two standing.
Chelsea have imposed themselves on the race but, for a season at least, have withdrawn.
Where Arsenal and United are concerned, the early years of the millennium are finally revisited.
Neither of the sides carry much momentum, of course, with the dispiriting events of the Nou Camp and the desultory draw with Sunderland delivering Arsenal, minus Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Wojciech Szczesny, as little succour as United, who after successive defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool are facing the prospect of the first three-match losing run since Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham did for them in 2001.
You might have expected Ferguson to have continued his recent sequence of dour, uncooperative press conferences yesterday.
But his most positive performances have always been reserved for the dark moments and thus it was that he offered quiet positivity and an understated jocularity that we have not seen in him for months. The swipes at his inquisitors were far less bitter than usual. “You're a genius. No, I'm not going to tell you my team.”
There were no mind games and no looking back. “I'm not getting into that. That's in the past,” he said of the defeat at Anfield. “I'm more interested in tomorrow.”
It may have some bearing on this evening's events that the indignation Ferguson harbours about officialdom is considerably more controlled than Wenger, who used most of his own pre-match press energies tearing into Fifa.
The only issue Ferguson could not hold on was Jamie Carragher's tackle on Luis Nani — a “disgraceful” one as he rightly called it.
Nani will be missing this evening and may not return until after the international break.
Ferguson certainly has some limitations to contend with, also claiming that Rio Ferdinand is out — taking his absence with a calf injury to seven weeks — and that Antonio Valencia and Ji-Sung Park are not ready.
Wenger should probably view Ferguson's refusal to go overboard on his own side — “they're certainly closer to winning the league this season,” was about as far as he would go with it — as an inverted compliment.
The best estimate of the effect of today's events on their relationship is summed up by the answer Ferguson gave at that Q & A when asked if they were now friends.
“Until the next match,” he replied, with a laugh.