Arsenal vs. Leicester a painful reunion for Arsene Wenger with Claudio Ranieri
Arsene Wenger and Claudio Ranieri have always been fond of each other. To call them close might be pushing it, but they share more than basic professional respect: there is genuine affection there, too. The Italian was a regular visitor to Highbury while he was Chelsea manager, travelling incognito to and from games on the tube; the pair remained in touch even after his time at Stamford Bridge had drawn to a close.
At the heart of their friendship, though, is what Wenger refers to as "a scar that remains, somewhere, forever." After all, Ranieri was responsible for what may be the most profound regret of the Arsenal manager's long and distinguished career, the defeat that still pains him more than pretty much any other.
It dates back to the Leicester manager's final season at Stamford Bridge in 2003-04, when Arsenal were officially invincible. Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and the rest were in their pomp, striding unencumbered toward not just the championship but also one of the most remarkable feats of the modern era. And yet they might -- they should, perhaps -- have achieved even more than that.
Ranieri stood in their way. The Italian was in charge of the Chelsea team that met Wenger's side in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. It is a little hard to imagine now given the hold Chelsea seem to have over Wenger, but such was Arsenal's domestic supremacy that they were heavy favourites to progress. They did not. The first leg was drawn; Wayne Bridge settled the second. Chelsea went through, Arsenal fell short.
Arsenal might have reached the Champions League final a couple of years later, losing to Barcelona in Paris in 2006, but the 2003-04 season was by most measures their best chance to win the one trophy that continues to elude club and manager alike. They may have advanced further in the competition, but they have probably never been closer to winning it.
This Sunday, the old friends are reunited in a very different situation but in strikingly similar circumstances. Ranieri's Leicester, the most remarkable story of this or pretty much any other Premier League season, travel to the Emirates. It is not quite a title decider, but it does carry that air of significance. Defeat would not necessarily spell the end for Leicester's title challenge, but it just might for Arsenal's. And if it does, that would be another scar, delivered by Ranieri, on Wenger's heart.
There is a similarity between this season in the Premier League and that 2003-04 season in the Champions League. That year felt like a lacuna between eras -- before 2004, Europe's premier competition was the preserve of the Italian clubs and the original Galacticos of Real Madrid, with the occasional blast from Germany and England. After it, as Italy faded away, first the Premier League and then the continent's super-clubs would make it their plaything.
Between those two ages came 2004, the one Champions League year that does not fit neatly into any category. Jose Mourinho's Porto won it, of course, beating Monaco in the final, but they were hardly a team for the ages. They had one or two outstanding individuals (Deco and Ricardo Carvalho) and they were led by a quite remarkable young manager. They were not, though, starting a dynasty that heralded a shift in power; instead, they were outsiders thriving in a power vacuum.
That last point is what gives Wenger such cause for regret. The Frenchman is unequivocal in his belief that his team were the best in Europe that year. They were, certainly, the best team he has ever produced: not just beautiful in attack but devastating, too, the trait that was so sadly lacking in the more artistic sides he would craft in their wake. They were laced with steel, a lump of iron swaddled in velvet, thanks to the likes of Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell.
Given their quality and the lack of obstacles elsewhere, that was Arsenal's opportunity. They would have fancied their chances against Monaco in the semifinals and Porto in the final, too, for all Mourinho's quality. And yet Ranieri stood in their way, blocking their path.
For the Champions League 2003-04, read the Premier League, 2015-16. It casts Wenger and Ranieri together again, another defining fixture in their sights, and the Frenchman doubtless mindful that his old friend could yet deliver another blow from which he will never, truly, recover.
This has been a liminal season in the Premier League. It has the feel of one caught between distinct eras. Before was the age of Sir Alex Ferguson and Chelsea's first empire, with Manchester City's star rising as the sun started to set elsewhere. The future, meanwhile, holds the arrival of serial winner Pep Guardiola, marking the next phase of City's development at a time when there has never been a more sustained challenge to the Premier League elite.
Chelsea and United will doubtless come again. Spurs are growing, while Liverpool cannot afford to waste another second if they ever hope to be a major force again. West Ham and Southampton and, yes, Leicester, seem to have lost their fear of the big boys. In other words, it will be more difficult than ever to win the league from next season on. This, then, was Wenger's chance: in the middle of that power shift, between the dusk of one age and the dawn of another.
This should be Arsenal's season. They have two of the league's outstanding players in Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, and one of its finest goalkeepers in Petr Cech. They are shot through with menace -- the power of Olivier Giroud, the pace of Theo Walcott, the thrust of Aaron Ramsey -- and though they are not so steely as once they were, they have solved the defensive brittleness that stymied them for so long.
Lose to Leicester, though, and it may well all count for nothing. Ranieri's team are five points ahead of them now; Tottenham are building up a head of steam; Manchester City will not wait around for Arsenal forever.
In the vacuum once more, Wenger and Arsenal had their opportunity. Their manager will know that they cannot afford a repeat of 2004. They already boast one scar from an encounter with Ranieri, Wenger's old friend. They would not be able to bear another.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.