EPL Week 12 Talking Points: Mourinho v Wenger

There was a time when Manchester United versus Arsenal was the only game in town and the rest of the top-flight fixtures mere sideshows. The Gunners and the Red Devils served up some of the most memorable duels of the Premier League era.

Can Jose breathe new life into an old rivalry?

The rivalry was shaped in large measure by the caustic relationship between the managers, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, who set the tone for the battles out on the pitch. Moulded in their respective managers’ image, Arsenal and United players went at each other hammer and tongs. They were battles within the war; Fergie v Wenger, Roy Keane v Patrick Viera, Ruud van Nilstelrooy against the Arsenal defenders, etc. As they say with nostalgic hankering, ‘those were the days’.

The war of words between Fergie and Wenger assumed the status of an extended pre-match ritual. So it was that battles were fought on and off the pitch, with moral victories won and lost before a ball had even been kicked.

Throughout his illustrious managerial career Fergie distinguished himself as quite the master of mind games. In fact, he acquired notoriety for it. He knew how to get under rivals’ skin.

Kevin Keegan was one of the biggest casualties of the Scot’s mind games.

Two decades ago, with the title race delicately poised heading into the last couple of matches of the campaign, Keegan’s Newcastle United brushed aside Leeds United to close the gap on leaders United to three points. Fergie then suggested that Leeds players had meekly surrendered before hinting that Nottingham Forest, the Magpies’ next opponents for their game in hand were unlikely to put up much of a fight either. Premier League teams, Fergie ‘mischievously’ observed, reserved their best effort for Manchester United.

The suggestion that opponents were giving Newcastle an easy ride riled Keegan. He was apoplectic. The Magpies boss launched into his now infamous “I will love it if we beat them, love it,” rant. Sadly, he had taken the bait and fallen into Fergie’s trap. It proved to be the turning point in a title race which United went on to win.

Many will reference Keegan’s meltdown as the most definitive evidence of the efficacy of Fergie’s mind games. However, it was against a more formidable adversary, Wenger, that Fergie waged psychological warfare on a more sustained scale.

After years of fierce gladiatorial combat, hostilities between United and Arsenal have thawed considerably in recent years. As Fergie mellowed with age and neared retirement, and as newer threats to United and Arsenal’s duopoly emerged, mainly in the form of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, the mutual antipathy between Arsenal and United began to dissipate. At the height of hostilities the pre-match handshake between the feuding managers was perfunctory. But as acerbic banter gave way to an understated friendship the post-match handshake became warmer and lingering, occasionally augmented with an endearing pat on the back.

There is no doubt that the newfound camaraderie between Wenger and Fergie in the twilight of the latter’s career took the edge and intensity out of the matches between Arsenal and United. What fans wouldn’t give to have the old rivalry back.

Can Mourinho blow the ashes off this smouldering rivalry and load fresh coals into the furnace?

There is no love lost between Wenger and Mourinho. They have been feuding for years. The animus degenerated into a pushing and shoving match on the touchline two years ago. Wenger was severely censored by the authorities while both men were warned as to their future conduct.

On Saturday Mourinho will welcome to Old Trafford a rival he once described as a “voyeur” and most recently as a “specialist in failure.” It is because of the simmering hostility between the two managers that Saturday’s tie holds a lot of promise. If we are lucky and the players tap into their managers’ feud we might even get a contest reminiscent of the old rivalry.

Can spoilers Boro peg back Chelsea?p>

When the fixture list was released Middlesbrough would have looked at successive matches against Arsenal, Bournemouth, Manchester City and Chelsea with a bit of trepidation. If they managed to get points off Bournemouth only they would be satisfied.

The Premier League new-boys have actually done much better than expected. They denied Arsenal the chance to move to the top of the standings by holding Wenger’s men to a goalless draw. Two weeks later, Manchester City forfeited top spot after a 1-1 draw at home to Aitor Karanka’s men. Sandwiched between the creditable draws against the title hopefuls was a win over the Cherries. Up next for Boro is the Premier League’s form team, Chelsea.

The Blues have not conceded a goal in the five matches since the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal in September. During that period they averaged three goals per game. Antonio Conte’s men are slowly building a reputation as a free-scoring side with a miserly defence. But Boro, emboldened by how they acquitted themselves against Arsenal and City, will be determined to make a good fist of the contest.

Palace must stem the tide

The priority for Crystal Palace when they welcome Manchester City on Saturday will be to batten down the hatches and avoid a fifth successive league defeat. Against a City side teeming with attacking talent that is easier said than done.

Palace will draw encouragement from the visitors’ recent displays. Pep Guardiola’s men have looked anything but invincible. They owe their place in the top three to a blistering start during which they won their opening six matches. Their last five matches have yielded just six points. Alan Pardew’s charges will feel that they can profit from City’s defensive frailties.

An early season relegation six-pointer

With just over a quarter of the season gone, it’s too early to start talking about relegation. But already there are ties with the look of relegation six-pointers. The basement clash between Sunderland and Hull City on Saturday is one of them.

Both sides come into this clash off the back of crucial victories last time out. The Black Cats overcame the sending off of Steven Pienaar to beat Bournemouth for their first win on the campaign, while the Tigers defied the odds against Southampton.

Hull and Sunderland are under no illusions about what they need to do if they are to retain their Premier League statuses come May – take points off fellow strugglers. That means winning matches like this one.

Lashias Ncube