Can a rusted cavalry see off an incessant rivalry?

What does it actually take to win a match? A championship? Or league season? There could be umpteenth suggestions on how to claim the victory. Though physical fitness, shape and momentum are a must to compete at such high level, one thing which is of utmost priority is Belief! The belief that I can actually outperform others when the situation calls. The belief that if I stay in the competition till last minute believing my abilities & skills, I will turn the match in my favor. Half of the war is won in the mental battlefield.

Tomorrow, Arsenal would be playing Manchester United at Old Trafford. The fixture, which gave birth to one of the most gruesome & cutthroat rivalry, has lost its significance in recent years. The era of Keane-Vieira is long gone and so is the much celebrated rivalry between two clubs. These two powerhouses of English football were the undisputed titans of the premier league. The ones who were competing for the throne, who were stuck in right there, pushing each and every season to get an edge over the other. The rivalry to claim the zenith of the English football, the most competitive league in the world.

The masterminds behind this duel of gaining superiority over the other were two non-Englishman- A Scottish legend and a French professor. Like all the good stories, this rivalry had drama, thrill, emotions and unpredictability associated with it. In a league of United Kingdom, the year 1996 marked the beginning of a new era. The era where most celebrated manager in the history of world football was challenged & usurped by an unknown foreigner. The era where the undisputed kings of the premier league were forced to rework and rethink their tactics. The game was on!

1996 will go down in the history books as the year which ignited the fiercest rivalry of recent times. One might argue that Barcelona – Real Madrid is the biggest rivalry of all time. Being the richest teams of La Liga, both had equal resources to deploy in order to get better of the opposition. If you’ll forego the ascend of Atlectico de Madrid in recent years, La Liga is the league where 2 El Classicos are enough define the eventual title winners.

Arsenal vs Manchester Utd was always more than battle of two powerhouses. It was a clash of 2 different philosophies. It was the stubbornness to claim the utmost glory in a league where you can drop points anytime. And it was a tactical fight between the 2 managers to outdo each other. The last of their kind. The old school gaffer who spend more than 25% of their life at the same club. Not like the top teams of Spain who changes their manager year by year.

So how did the fight go? In a period of 8 years post Wenger’s appointment, these 2 teams shared 8 premier league titles between them. They shared 6 out of 9 FA cups in this period. Average of 1.75/2 cups a year, for 8 consecutive years, in premier league. This is how champions make a statement. Both shared their equal tally of 7 cups with each other. The rivalry was at its best.

But everything, good or bad, comes to an end. The famous brawls in the field, missed penalties & thrown pizzas, pre match tunnel banter, ruthless tackles & sarcastic conferences ended when Arsenal’s mettle started fading away. This was the time when another non Englishman took over the league with his new pragmatic approach and tactical mastermind. He was the one who induced Blue color in the long decade of Red supremacy. The special one announced his arrival in a grandeur manner.

And speaking of the gunners, as said, the old mettle was gone. There was always something short in their belief which made them look too vulnerable. They stuck to their old philosophy in the era of Portuguese pragmatism. Manchester united bounced back and reclaimed their title again, but the story didn’t go the same way for the gunners. Players leaving for rivals, long list of injuries, inactivity in the transfer market and no silverware for next 10 years. The belief was dead, let alone the rivalry. Season in and season out same script kept on running for the French professor. Managers came, fought, won & got fired but Arsene Wenger was still stuck in there hoping for his next premier league title. Although there were Several fan outbursts, board’s trust against his competence remained intact.

Every story has 2 parts. Before the interval, Wenger had a fairy tale. He came out of nowhere and pulled the magical golden premier league from the hat. The beautiful way of playing attacking football. That class and showmanship. Magnificent! The second half was a stark realization of adversities. Changing stadiums and selling players, the hard times were ahead – No silverware and fan backlash. Criticized from all direction, Wenger was labelled as too old to be tactically decisive. He was consistent enough to ensure a champions league competition every year but at the same time his team was never an actual title contender. The fragility of back four remained the biggest puzzle to be solved in next 10 years. Though Arsenal finished at 2nd, 3rd and 4th place – they were never good enough to win the title. Mourinho managed to get the better of Wenger in all the occasions. Now this was another rivalry building up in the second part of our story. Arsenal was far too weak to actually contend for the title and theater of dreams became a haunting pitch of the gunners. They didn’t win a single game at old Trafford since 2006! No matter how weak or strong Red Devils were, they always had an ace up their sleeve. The 8-2 gunning down of Arsenal at Trafford marked the end of significance of this fixture. On the other hand, Mourinho never allowed Wenger to have a laugh over the result.

Tomorrow, Wenger would be meeting his arch nemesis who has haunted him the most in last 10 years – in the stadium which has haunted him the most in last 10 years. After spending 20 years in the job, Wenger’s contract is running out this year. Lack of silverware would definitely make him leave his beloved club. This might be the last time he can avenge the earlier results. Would he able to pull one last magical trick this time or the story would remain same for Arsene Wenger? The point to ponder is would he be playing with his old style, sticking to the philosophy or would be audacious enough to try something which he has never done before. When pundits say he is too outdated to compete against the current crop of managers, are they talking sense? Or is he going to prove every one of them wrong tomorrow? Is his tactics and approach for a big game are actually outdated and rusted? Or he would finally get better of two of his worst nightmare. Only time will tell.

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