War of words takes a back-seat
ARSENAL 2-2 MANCHESTER UNITED
There was a time when a clash between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger was hailed as the ultimate showdown in Premier League football.
Like Ali v Frazier or Connors v McEnroe, the managers of Manchester United and Arsenal spent much of their early years together in direct competition for all the top prizes in the game, with the articulate Frenchman getting the better of Ferguson more than anyone else in recent years.
Touchline scuffles and tunnel scraps have dominated their stormy past, yet time is a healer in any relationship and while these two serial winners have had an affair that would test the best of counsellors, the last couple of years have produced a thawing of relations.
Much of that could be credited to the emergence of Jose Mourinho and Chelsea. When it was merely a battle between Wenger and Ferguson, they felt the only option was to bite lumps out of each other every week, but with a third member added into their exclusive club for the last three years, perspective has been added to the mix.
And as Ferguson stepped out into a stadium built on the back of the vision Wenger has brought to Arsenal, admiration rather than anger may have drifted into his mind. As many a player and journalist have found to their cost down the years, it takes a lot to earn the respect of Sir Alex, yet the Arsenal manager must have done that by now.
The fiery Scot and the studious Gallic brain are never likely to be best of pals, but at least they have learned to live with each other now. In many ways, like boxers Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank in the 1990s, they have needed each other to establish their own legends and maybe the pair can see as much now.
Even though all of us at the Emirates Stadium would have hoped this would be a feast of football with goals and thrilling play from the off, reality got into the way of fantasy in an opening half that failed to live up to expectations.
The tactical battle between these two managerial masters is always a fascination and Ferguson's ploy of starting Wayne Rooney and Cristiano in the wide positions behind a lead striker of Carlos Tevez could have been construed as a cautious move. Alternatively, it could have been described as a potent three man attack.
As it turned out, the key men for United in the first half were Owen Hargreaves and Anderson as they did their best to chop down Arsenal's attacking intent at its heart, with Cesc Fabregas struggling to find the space he thrives in.
Using the word 'boring' to describe the first half seems a little harsh when you consider the talent on show in front of us, but the chances were few and far between, with both sides cancelling each other out in frustrating fashion.
So it came as something of a shock when United snatched a lead on the stroke of the interval after Wayne Rooney's mishit near post shot was diverted goal bound by Arsenal captain William Gallas. It was an own goal and in a game as tight as this, it seemed as if it may be crucial.
John O'Shea spent much of the half-time interval warming up in front of the press area at the Emirates Stadium, though Ferguson opted to send the same eleven players out for the second period and within a couple of minutes of the restart, the game was level.
All the talk before the game was about the growing stature of Fabregas on the world stage and even though he took time to make his mark in this showpiece occasion, the little Spaniard was in the right place to tap home an equaliser from just outside the six yard box. His eleventh goal of a remarkable season simply served to confirm that he is arguably the best player in the world right now.
Wenger showed his determination to go after the game when he replaced the defensive minded Emmanuel Eboue with attacking livewire Theo Walcott; but it so nearly backfired as Patrice Evra ran into the space vacated by the departed Arsenal full-back and set up the otherwise quiet Cristiano Ronaldo to fire what looked like an 81st minute winner.
Arsenal seemed to be staring at their first defeat of the season until William Gallas fired an injury-time leveller after a goal mouth scramble and so we were back to where it all started. In spite of the four goals in the game, this was not a classic to remember, but Wenger seemed content with his lot.
'Our character has been tested twice in the last week and we came out unbeaten on both occasions,' he said. 'We are still learning how to play in games of this stature because we have a young team who are not used to playing under this much pressure, but we came away from this with increased belief.
'We only had eight minutes to get back into the game after Ronaldo's goal and still found a way to do it. This game doesn't prove anything other than confirming we have a good team and we should have a chance to challenge for the title this season.'
As for Ferguson, he looked full of rage as he answered the questions. 'To give away a goal from our own throw in so soon after the break was ridiculous,' he moaned. 'We spoke about having some good possession after getting the goal on the stroke of half-time, but we gave away a very scrappy goal.
'Then we threw away another lead after Ronaldo looked like he had won it. This would have been a big three points for us and it was a lack of concentration that has cost us dear.
'Still, all credit to Arsenal. They are a good team and showed good spirit to come back at us. At the end of it all, we are where we started and that is not a bad thing for either of us.'
Those warm comments confirmed that the war of words off the pitch between Ferguson and Wenger is officially over. Now we can look forward to seeing their two brilliant teams battling it out for the title this season.
MAN OF THE MATCH: William Gallas
Arsenal's captain has brought a unity and spirit to the club that Thierry Henry's vast presence had shattered and it was fitting that their leader fired a last gasp leveller.
FOOD WATCH: Transport problems meant a late arrival at Emirates Stadium for The Insider, but a dip into the vast fruit bowl on offer was welcome.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Anyone sitting on a betting slip stating Arsenal will be Premier League champions this season can rest assured that they will get a good return for their money this season. The Gunners have proved beyond doubt that they will be in the title mix right through to the end.
UNITED VERDICT: A long way below their best at the Emirates Stadium, United still managed to produce a couple of fine goals and they comfortable held Arsenal for long periods. With that in mind, they might look back on this draw as two dropped points.