By Richard Clarke
At first glance, the difference between Arsenal and Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday may appear to be a chasm.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side need only a point to take their 10th title of the Premier League era. Meanwhile Arsenal are seeing out their season after a number of critical defeats in the past month.
Back in mid April, matters were very different. Wenger’s men still had their mojo. They had got to the Semi-Final of two competitions and were attempting to elevate themselves into the top three in the Premier League. Not a bad recovery for a side who had been beaten five times before Christmas.
At the same time Manchester United were wavering. Shock defeats to Liverpool and Fulham were fresh in the memory. Rafa Benitez’ side were looming, or even leading, in the Premier League table. Their recovery was hardly completed by scrappy victories against Aston Villa and Sunderland. Meanwhile Porto had achieved a handy 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in the Champions League Quarter-Final first leg.
Of course, they came through the return game, beat Arsenal in the Semi-Final and, according to Wenger, are deservedly champions-elect.
However, for the manager, momentum was the crucial commodity during the run-in.
What Arsenal lost, Manchester United gained. The two teams diverged leaving Wenger playing catch-up and Ferguson made-up. Nothing will hammer home that point more strongly than the Old Trafford club clinching the title on Saturday.
“Man United caught form at the right moment,” admitted Wenger at his pre-match press conference on Thursday. “They got momentum.
“I saw them against Aston Villa and that shows you how strange sport can be. You felt nearly sorry for them. They won the game in the end but they were closer to losing 3-1 or 4-1 than to making it 2-2 or winning 3-2.
“For us, we had [momentum a month ago] but we missed something after that. I don't deny it.
“We were 1-0 up against Chelsea [in the FA Cup Semi-Final] and we lost the game. It was a blow to lose like we did. How much has it affected our result against Manchester United [in the Champions League], I don't know. The only thing I know it would have been better before we played Man United to have beaten Chelsea.
“So yes there is one thing to acknowledge and that's we missed a little bit of something. But aswell Man United were the better team and we should not to be ashamed to say that. I think that's the beauty of sport. We should not be scared to say someone is better.”
Those words are in stark contrast to the scene seven years ago when Arsenal withstood significant Manchester United pressure to clinch the title at Old Trafford thanks to a goal from Sylvain Wiltord.
“Now that game was about a team having momentum,” Wenger remembered. “It was all just about a fraction of belief.
“In the worst moment of that game, when we were dominated, you just knew we would win 1-0. In our squad there was a belief that we just would do it. It always comes back to how important that fraction of belief is when a team is on the way up.”
Andrey Arshavin returns to the squad for Saturday after recovering from flu while Manuel Almunia is still troubled by an ankle problem and is unlikely to figure. The manager has pledged to play a full side for the remaining games but, whatever happens, it will be a wistful end to the season for anyone involved in Arsenal.
And the manager’s most significant might-have-been moment came against Manchester United.
“I believe that the biggest regret of the season is that the supporters were ready for a hot night [in the Champions League Semi-Final second leg] against them but we couldn't deliver on the night,” he said. “For me that was the failure of the season.
“Apart from that, I believe what the team has achieved in the last six months is amazing.”
With disappointment still cutting deep, Arsenal’s season is not being painted that way outside the Club. The media will portray Saturday’s game as the thoroughbreds versus the also-rans. Wenger is well aware of the need to stay strong.
“It's all one big tribunal right now,” he admitted. “OK, I can take that but it's not down to me to assess.
“I know it's down to me to see what I've done and, for me, it's one of the best seasons for a long time considering where we were in November.
“I have enough experience to take on that [criticism] with the needed distance. I look in the mirror and think 'have I given everything, have you done the maximum you can’.
“Opinions are always manipulated. But I believe we are in a fantastic situation. You look at the shape of the Club, you look at the financial situation of the Club, you look at the quality of the squad. I would be pretty envious of this Club if I was on the outside.”
However, for Saturday at least, it will be the visitors who are covetous.
Even if Wenger’s side can repeat their victory over Manchester United at Emirates Stadium back in November, Ferguson’s side are likely to get the point they require at struggling Hull on the final day of the campaign.
For Arsenal fans, it is just a matter of keeping the faith and waiting for August.