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Reds ready to put 2014 behind them

Liverpool
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Happy New Year, Jose and Rafa!

New Year is a time for processions across Europe. And if proof were needed that the Premiership will be anything other than just that in 2005/6 then it came on January 3rd as Arsenal and Manchester United played out a tepid draw in their last ever league fixture at Highbury.

Those New Year parades often include a changing of the guard and Tuesday saw further proof that while 2005 was the year of Chelsea and Liverpool, 2006 will continue the phasing out of the old guard of United and Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson may bristle about the relative youth of their squads but the Chelsea machine is easing its way to a second successive title and the Liverpool juggernaut that recently won 10 games, conceding only a single goal in the process, looks far more canny, experienced and far less anguished in its pursuit of honours.

The Iberian pair of Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez are diametric opposites in character but are akin in footballing achievements and outlook. After nearly a decade of Wenger v Ferguson, the greatest managerial rivalry in the Premiership is now the ebullient Portuguese versus the quiet Spaniard.

Without departed skippers Vieira and Keane, Highbury saw two teams whose belief in a challenge for the title has, in the case of Arsenal, disappeared, and in Ferguson's team's case, is deep in the twilight zone. So, the stakes were lower, and in turn so was the drama.

An interesting statistic was aired during the match; this was Arsenal's 49th league game since an unbeaten run of 49 games was brought to a crashing halt at Old Trafford in October 2004. In their second 49 they have lost 11; a statistic that confirms what Arsenal's league position has shown all season. From being invincible they are now hugely vulnerable.

Wenger's tactics on Tuesday still bore the scars of that autumnal Sunday afternoon. He adopted the 4-5-1 formation he once dismissed as dull, choosing Thierry Henry as a lone frontman while hoping the extra body in midfield would stymie Wayne Rooney's roaming behind Ruud Van Nistlerooy. He proved successful in his aim, but gave his captain and striker very little to work with.

With Wes Brown showing the form that once had him praised as potentially a better centre-half than Rio Ferdinand, the Frenchman was negligible. It was left to Robert Pires, like Henry facing an uncertain future as an Arsenal player, to provide the impetus for what was a stronger first half from the Gunners.

Patrick Vieira had spoken at the weekend of how Arsenal had 'certainly suffered psychologically since I left'. While it is tempting to refuse to defer to the Juventus man's undoubted conceitedness, few could deny that Arsenal lacked the drive in midfield that he provided for nine seasons. The classic pairing of Vieira and Emmanuel Petit would surely have seen off Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea with ease.

When Roy Keane runs out for Celtic against Clyde on Sunday there may be heavy hearts among the United faithful, but their longing for a man who eventually kicked up one fuss too many can surely not be as plaintive as that of the committed Gooner in seeing the man from Senegal dominate the midfields of Serie A.

United had seen the best of Keane and while he is highly likely to add to his trophy cabinet north of the border, Vieira's leading role in Juventus' Chelsea-esque progress to scudetto glory while Arsenal fade in fifth seems to be the far greater of the two evils. Vieira is still proving his worth at the top level while Keane's former team-mates continue in a familiar role of trying to grip Chelsea's slipstream while their erstwhile captain enjoys a sinecure of reflected glory in a far inferior competition.

Fletcher is no Keane. Perhaps that's already the understatement of the whole of 2006. Yet he mastered the challenge of facing Gilberto Silva and Cesc Fabregas, whose combined lack of strength showed in being outmuscled by the young Scot and his Irish compadre, two players often decried for a lack of physical power. The close of the second half saw United looking the more likely, Arsenal defending in numbers and indulging in play-acting, with Lauren and keeper Jens Lehmann leading the cast.

Where once the standard of Arsenal's attacking play kept their less appealing side in the shadows, it was on show in full glare at Highbury. Lessons of indiscipline past have yet to be learned. The petulance continues. And Jose Antonio Reyes has never recovered the nerve lost when being 'reduced' by United in the FA Cup semi-final in 2004 and then, more infamously, by the Neville brothers as that unbeaten run fell short of the half-century.

Rather than adopt the George Best approach of beating the kickers and foulers through skill and sheer bravura, the Spaniard now faces United like he has wing-mirrors attached. Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney were all victims of his thespian skills. But the player's impact on his own team's attacking was negligible as a result. United's past cynicism cannot be praised but neither can Reyes's attempts to make two wrongs into a right.

Reyes personifies the fear that Arsenal still have of United, despite the Manchester club's own fade into the ranks of the Premiership. The FA Cup may have gone the way of North London in May but the 120 minutes of play that preceded penalties asserted United's superiority complex on the pitch.

Then, like Tuesday, a lack of cutting edge denied United. While Blackburn and Middlesbrough have been able to profit from United foibles in a season that will see them go three years without a title come May, Arsenal, the home side, could not repeat the achievements of lesser lights, showing only fleeting signs of a genuine threat.

If these truly are the pretenders to Chelsea, then any idea of a competitive Premiership can be scorned.

Both teams are lacking the squad strength to challenge the champions, with midfield leaders as yet unreplaced and left-backs out with long-term injury.

Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho can afford to add Portuguese engine-man Maniche to his squad when one of his midfield players is heading off to the African Nations Cup. He can also afford not to play an England international in Wayne Bridge at left-back all season because he can also call on Asier Del Horno and William Gallas.

And debt is a significant block to the desire of both Wenger and Ferguson to add players of the ilk of Maniche. The Glazer takeover's supposed £25m injection is yet to materialise - despite the £7.2m deal for defender Nemanja Vidic. Only Park Ji-Sung and Edwin Van Der Saar have cost money, while up to 30 professionals have been cut from the pay-roll, including the £5m a year paid to Keane.

And Arsenal's liability is yet higher than United's, though perhaps geared less fiercely in terms of repayment. Ashburton Grove has been a millstone around Wenger's plans to buy the players to keep Thierry Henry at the club. Should the unthinkable happen and Arsenal not make the Champions League, where Spurs, of all clubs, stand in their way, then there will be scant funds available. And maybe, for the second year in a row, a new Arsenal captain will be required.

Tuesday's match confirmed the realities of the new Premiership order. Arsenal v Manchester United is no longer a 'Judgement Night' or a title decider. The toothless skirmish at a behushed Highbury resembled a midweek battle between two also rans.

Reason being it was precisely that.


  • Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email John Brewin