ARSENAL head to Manchester United this weekend with manager Arsene Wenger talking of “strange times” and serenity but he is not referring to the fact his Premier League leaders are the favourites for the first time in many years.
It will be the first time in his 17 years at the London club that the Frenchman travels to Old Trafford without great rival Sir Alex Ferguson in the home dugout and it is this rather than his team’s five-point lead in the table creating an aura of calm.
“It will be a bit strange,” Wenger admitted. “I will see him (Ferguson), certainly yes. Now we meet each other only at the big managers’ meeting to speak about how we can improve football and not how can Manchester United beat Arsenal or how Arsenal can beat Man United. So of course it will be a bit more peaceful and more serene.”
For Arsenal, though, there are many more reasons to feel composed ahead of tomorrow’s encounter at a ground where they have failed to win in the league in their last six attempts, including a humiliating 8-2 thumping two seasons ago.
Holding a five-point advantage at the summit for the first time since February 2008, Arsenal have the rare luxury of a guarantee they will stay top even if they lose while victory would put them a huge 11 points clear of champions United.
Arsenal have lost just one of their ten league games this season to collect 25 points, while David Moyes’ United have already suffered three defeats to sit eighth with 17 points more than a quarter of the way into the season.
Victories at last season’s Champions League runners-up Borussia Dortmund and over fellow Premier League pacesetters Liverpool in their last two matches also helped put Arsenal in a good frame of mind before tomorrow’s match.
“We have confidence, but what is at stake is consistency at the top level for us and to be capable of repeating the performances in our last two games, that will certainly be very important for the future of our team,” Wenger said.
With Arsenal’s most recent league title coming in 2003-04 and having finished no higher than third in the last eight seasons, it is the first time for several years that this fixture has a truly big-game feel about it.
United endured a stuttering start to the season under Moyes but have started to find form and go into the game unbeaten in eight matches in all competitions. Without Ferguson to spice up the fixture with some choice words, United striker Wayne Rooney took it upon himself to remind Arsenal to keep their feet on the ground. “It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain that (form) because over the last six or seven years they have faded off,” he said.
Wenger was quick to issue a reminder of his own: “Usually after Christmas we have been very strong every season.”
Meanwhile, Darren Fletcher completed the first full 90 minutes of his comeback in United’s 1-0 Under-21 defeat by Stoke yesterday afternoon.
Fletcher is fighting his way back to fitness after being laid low by a chronic bowel complaint. Although the Scot is still believed to be some way short of a return to first-team duty, Moyes was on hand to watch the majority of a game that was switched to United’s AON Training Complex at short notice.
Fletcher came through the contest – which also featured Fabio and Wilfried Zaha – unscathed, although striker Will Keane lasted only a couple of minutes after suffering a nasty cut to his head.