If you want to know why the Premier League is regarded as the most entertaining league in the world, you only have to look back to Arsene Wenger’s early years at Arsenal and the games against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
These weren’t the games we see today, big because they’ve been hyped by Sky Sports but, ultimately, a let down to all those who tune in. These were matches between two giants who needed to win. If they could destroy the opposition, even better.
The pizza flew after the final whistle in the same way the tackles did during the game. When Arsenal played Manchester United you had no idea what would happen. Would Vieira and Keane kill each other in the tunnel? Who would be on crutches at the end of the game? Which manager would turn his hatred of the other into the most cutting quip in the press conference?
It was pure drama and never scripted, never hyped.
It didn’t need to be.
Those games really mattered.
Arsenal fans will never forget heading to Old Trafford, needing a win to win the league.
Neither set of fans will forget the game that ended Arsenal’s 49 unbeaten run, talked of now because of Cesc Fabregas’s aim with a slice rather than the referee-endorsed kicking Arsenal endured for 90 minutes.
Henry humiliating Barthez, Ruud van Nistelrooy’s penalty miss and Martin Keown’s ape-like response are all tales from a bygone age that started to slip away after Arsenal’s 2005 FA Cup robbery against the same side.
Despite all that, despite the vitriol between the two clubs, managers and sets of fans, there was a grudging respect between the two best in the country. You don’t tend to hate that which is rubbish.
But that’s what Arsenal are now.
United themselves aren’t much better and this game has more of a mid-table feel about it than anything that matters, but they will be overwhelming favourites on Sunday and one final humiliation could be on the cards for Wenger and his merry band of bottlers.
I’d like to think that this game will matter to the Arsenal fringe players that will turn up at Old Trafford on Sunday but it won’t. They will have one eye on correcting their Thursday night cock-up and another watching their fragile confidence for signs of a full-on nervous breakdown.
There are many ways in which Jose Mourinho is not like Sir Alex Ferguson, but his desire to truly humiliate his opponent is perhaps the biggest. He will want to inflict maximum pain on Arsene Wenger while he still can, regardless of the nature of the fixture. Perhaps because of it.
Things may have also settled between Wenger and Mourinho as Arsenal deteriorated, but the Portuguese still carries a massive chip because of him. He sees the Frenchman afforded respect that he believes was never offered to him, despite his numerous successes.
I’d love to think that Arsenal will go to Old Trafford with a point to prove after their latest clown show performance, but I’m all out of faith. I’ve no doubt they want to do their best for Wenger before he leaves. That’s part of the problem. Their best still comes with the ability to kick the ball into their own faces.
Too many times over the past decade Arsenal have dominated Manchester United only to lose. What other team on the planet concedes one shot on target yet still loses 2-1?
I expect Arsene Wenger to receive a rapturous reception from the Old Trafford faithful. He may be more a figure of fun now, but they know what he represents. He is the last of a generation, the final remnant of an era that saw two red giants stomp all over this Premier League in ways Manchester City can only dream of.
A red giant, however, is a dying star. In five billion years our own Sun will turn into one and destroy Earth. It may only feel like Arsene Wenger has been at Arsenal that long, but his light has finally faded and will be soon out of view.
But before he leaves, there is still time for one more embarrassment against United. There will be no spectacular stellar performance. Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal is ending, not with a big bang, but with a feeble whimper.