Arsenal-United ties not as decisive now but rivalry remains important: Wenger
Arsene Wenger has conceded meetings between Arsenal and Manchester United are no longer the "final of the championship" but believes the fixture is still crucial to the Premier League.
In and around the turn of the century, Sir Alex Ferguson’s United and Wenger’s Gunners were the teams to beat in England and took nine consecutive titles between them from 1996 to 2004, with many memorable clashes between midfielders Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira.
Since then the emergence of teams like Chelsea and Manchester City has seen the two-horse race widen, while Liverpool, Tottenham and Leicester can also lay claim to being in the title picture in recent years.
That means the meetings between United and Arsenal are no longer pivotal in deciding the destination of the trophy.
United travel to the Emirates today with the Gunners having won the corresponding fixture last season — Wenger’s first competitive victory over Jose Mourinho coming at the 16th attempt.
They both go into this meeting hoping for a victory to keep a hold on the coattails of runaway leaders City. But Wenger admits the clash is no longer decisive even if he is keen to get another win over his old foes.
“No, not as much,” he replied when asked if the game defines the season as much as it once did. “We are early in the season and during some seasons when I was here it was the final of the championship but that is not the case anymore.
“We have six or seven teams that fight at the top, but it is still a very big, important game.
“The history of the fixture plays a little part because it is two big clubs and that always creates a big game and players know that a lot will be said before and after the game. Of course it has an influence.”
The 2-0 victory over United on May 7 is part of a 12-game winning run at home for Arsenal in the Premier League. They made it a dozen victories in succession with a 5-0 win over Huddersfield on Wednesday, although record signing Alexandre Lacazette picked up a groin injury that rules the striker out.
That means Olivier Giroud, who scored twice after replacing his France international colleague, could be handed his first Premier League start of the campaign. The likes of Giroud, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere have had to settle for a role in the Europa League this season with all three admitting frustration.
“It’s difficult to keep everybody happy,” Wenger admitted. “But on the other hand we are all here to win games for Arsenal and everybody has their moment to come into the side.
“At the moment I am impressed by the quality of behaviour from everybody. Everybody is focused and determined to do well.”
Meanwhile, Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and Marouane Fellaini will miss the game due to injury.
Defenders Jones and Bailly have each sat out the last four games, while Fellaini was absent for Tuesday’s 4-2 win at Watford.
United boss Mourinho said that none of the trio would be involved, and that Fellaini’s fellow midfielder Nemanja Matic was a doubt.
Mourinho said of the influential Matic, who came off in the second half at Vicarage Road because of what the manager has described as a muscular issue: “I hope he can (be involved), but I cannot guarantee it.”
Jones has been out of action since limping off in the first half of England’s match against Germany on November 10. And Mourinho hit out at England’s treatment of the player, specifically that Jones had been given six painkilling injections in order to feature in a friendly.
On Thursday, England boss Gareth Southgate spoke about Jones, saying he had “massive empathy” for Mourinho, while also stressing “we have got ongoing dialogue over this situation.”.
But when Mourinho was asked at the press conference on Friday if the England camp had explained more to him about the matter, he simply said “no”.