By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger described it as “a little disappointment”.
Certainly the visiting team were swept away by a marauding, vibrant outfit who seemed to attack with ease. The defeat was a huge blow and could have a lasting effect on the rest of their campaign even though they still have much to play for.
Yes, Manchester United were well-beaten at Liverpool last Sunday.
Dirk Kuyt’s hat-trick not only opened up the title race once more, it also instilled the Anfield side with a sense of re-birth at the hands of a fierce local rival.
Arsenal can empathise. Losing to Barcelona – whatever the balance of play, whatever the officiating - is one thing. Seeing Tottenham go one stage further in the Champions League is an entirely new and deeply uncomfortable feeling.
So both both protagonists come in to Saturday’s FA Cup Sixth Round tie at Old Trafford with fresh wounds. These are not scars - that suggests the pain has gone and only the mark remains – these feelings are red raw. Neither Arsenal nor Manchester United will see their season ended by defeat this weekend but it will be another weighty blow from which, some say, they may struggle to recover.
Wenger rarely feeds the hype-monster ahead of big games but he admitted that his side “need this one”.
It is certainly a massive moment in the season. These two old sparring partners are entering the final few rounds of a long title fight. Both have been to the canvas recently but, having risen to their feet once more, it is just a matter of how much they have left.
One of these weary competitors seem sure to have their hand raised at the end of the Premier League campaign. Saturday’s winners will be favourites for the FA Cup aswell given the number of big names who have already been knocked out.
“I think at the moment the two teams have had a little disappointment recently,” said Wenger. “So it’s still the one who deals with that the best with who can come out on top.
"Man United have lost two games, we just lost two as well, so how well we cope with it all will be vital certainly.”
As ever, much has been made of the relationship between the two managers. For the best part of a decade around the Millennium, this was THE Premier League battle. That is why this season’s title battle has a mouthwatering history to it and, for many, Saturday will hand the winner a psychological edge. But, as usual, Wenger brushed aside the dugout debate.
“It’s like when they asked Cesc the other night ‘what does it feel to play against Barcelona?’” remarked the manager. “When you are a football player you want to win. Ferguson will want to win the game, I will want to win the game.
“At the moment my worries are not my relationship with Ferguson. My real problem is to get the team back with positive vibes. And for us the game on Saturday on that front is important because it can put us in the Semi-Final of the FA Cup.”
But mentioning that history did prompt the Arsenal manager in to a minute or two of reminiscence.
“My fondest memory? When we won the title in 2002 because it was the final [stage],” said Wenger. “The biggest disappointment was the 50th unbeaten game, when we lost under special circumstances.
“The win in ’98 was a good moment but we had some bad ones too - we lost 6-1 one Saturday morning I remember.”
And what about the FA Cup Semi-Final defeat at Villa Park in 1999 when Ryan Giggs fired an unlikely winner from ten-man Manchester United over the head of David Seaman at the near post.
“Yes that was unbelievable,” remembered Wenger. “It was a replay and we had a penalty from Bergkamp in the last second to win it. After [that miss] he never took a penalty again.”
Fabregas is out for a couple of games after suffering a slight recurrence of his hamstring injury at Barcelona. But Robin van Persie, who defied the odds to comeback early for the Nou Camp game, is available.
Wojciech Szczesny dislocated his finger at Barcelona and is out for at least six weeks so Manuel Almunia continues in goal. With Lukasz Fabianski (shoulder) out for the season, James Shea, 19, will be on the bench. After the game Wenger will concentrate on bringing in an experienced keeper on emergency loan.
Alex Song (knee) and Theo Walcott (ankle) are still missing.
Manchester United have been stuttering of late, losing their last two games – at Chelsea and Liverpool. If Arsenal can win on Saturday it would be the first time Ferguson’s side has been beaten three times in a row since May 2001 but even then they had already clinched the title.
There may be a perceptible weakness away from home but, at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s record is magnificent. It is P14 W13 D1 L0 in the Premier League including a cagey but competent 1-0 win over Arsenal in December. The visitors did well back then but the home side grabbed a goal, Ji-Sung Park’s third in his last three starts against Wenger’s side, and then focused on retaining their advantage.
“They play always against us with a very tight midfield and try to put pressure on us from there,” said Wenger. “That night they had only Rooney up front, so I think they set up against us to defend well.
“I wouldn’t say they are scared [of us]. They have no reason to be scared because they have enough experience. But they always have a little bit of a realistic approach of the game.”
And it has served them well.
In their last six games up there, Arsenal have lost five and drawn once and that came when a nervous Manchester United were trying to clinch the title in 2009.
They are scary statistics but the perception this season is that Wenger’s men are a little stronger and Ferguson’s a little weaker.
Not that weak though.
“They are still very efficient at the back,” said Wenger. “At home they score more goals than before. They are still a dangerous side, you feel always when they get in the final third they can score goals.”
Depending on your viewpoint, those defeats to Birmingham and Barcelona have left Arsenal’s season half-full or half-empty.
But, given that over-quoted statistic about the length of time without a trophy, isn’t any silverware an achievement for Wenger’s side right now?
The Premier League is a priority but the FA Cup is an end in itself.
Manchester United have their own Champions League second leg at home to Marseilles next Wednesday but they also have a habit of finding a way to win when they play Arsenal.
For once, Wenger’s side simply have to block their path.
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