| FERGUSON: A man in control
Do not adjust your television sets. The man on your screen who seems to have swallowed a wasp-covered cactus is in fact Arsene Wenger, usually the Dalai Lama of the dug-out. The man next to him looking all cool and cocky is Sir Alex Ferguson, normally Etna in tartan.
Of the scrapbook full of images collected during an epic Wednesday nightís show at Highbury, one of the most significant was the apparent role reversals between the managers of Arsenal and Manchester United. Wenger raged. Ferguson smiled. Wenger gesticulated angrily at officials. Ferguson shook hands with the referee, possibly a landmark occasion.
A perception generated during Fergusonís pre-match briefing gained credence at Highbury. Unitedís manager does seem a man in control, a chess grandmaster with all his pieces in position and primed to shout a triumphalist ďcheck-mateĒ at the Frenchman.
Wenger just resembles a performance car owner espying steam coming out from under the bonnet of his gleaming Ferrari. It was not just the result at Highbury that upset Wenger, a 2-2 draw keeping Arsenal three points behind United, albeit with a game in hand and a plus-1 goal difference over their rivals.
It was the disappointing denouement, the way his champions fought back only for poor concentration to allow Ryan Giggs to head an equaliser. (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer crossing to Giggs; indeed a night of role reversals.)
Arsenal, particularly with Martin Keown and Sol Campbell in tandem, do not usually concede these types of goals. No wonder Wenger was apoplectic, his disposition darkened further when Campbell was dismissed for catching Solskjaer with an elbow.
The defender will appeal against a four-game ban and Arsenal have the best lawyers around but, under the rules, a reprieve appears unlikely. The Football Association risks shredding the credibility of Mark Halsey ó excellent on the night ó and his linesman, Nigel Miller, if they overturned the verdict. Campbell will be much missed.
As for Patrick Vieira, so sadly lame, Arsenal are arguably better off with a 100 per cent Edu or Ray Parlour than a 60 per cent Vieira. Vieira will be absent at Middlesbrough on Saturday where Steve McClaren would cement his place in Old Traffordís good books with a win, particularly if United maintain their domestic momentum by seeing off Blackburn Rovers.
Now is the time for Wenger to regain his composure, to send out a message that his hand is firmly on the tiller, even if a gale of anger and frustration swirls within him. Now is the time for Arsenal to behave like champions, to take setbacks in their stride and pour their energies into winning their remaining games, not wallowing in self-pity.
Twists and turns doubtless lie ahead, particularly with United travelling to Everton on the last day, while Arsenal contribute to Sunderlandís farewell to the Premiership at the Stadium of Light. But United already deserve sustained praise for making a race of it, remarkably so in the wake of their humiliation at Maine Road when they did not even look the best team in their own city, let alone country.
For that, tribute must go to Ferguson for re-lighting the playersí fire.
Derided for the flying boot at David Beckham, the Glaswegian was simply showing his annoyance at under-achievement. Castigated for admittedly preposterous remarks about the Champions League draw, Ferguson was fostering a siege mentality within his players and also betraying his penchant for conspiracy theories; this is an individual who probably believes Wenger accounted for JFK as well as JR.
As for those of us who contend that United will fail to overhaul Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals, Ferguson is particularly scathing, promising the mother and furious father of all receptions when Raul and company step foot on Salford soil next Wednesday.
Not always the master-tactician, Ferguson also deserves credit for creating a central-midfield blend with Nicky Butt that protects the ageing Roy Keane, allowing the Irishman to do what he does best, reading developing situations.
Whisper it quietly in Fergusonís presence but the Scotís 4-4-1-1 approach carries echoes of Realís 4-2-3-1: Butt and Keane hold the fort while Solskjaer, deservedly keeping Beckham out (dead-balls apart), Giggs and Paul Scholes weave their runs and magic behind Ruud van Nistelrooy. A gruelling lap remains of the championship race but United have responded best to the bell. The two managerís contrasting moods reflect that.
Veron return delayed
l Meanwhile, Manchester United midfielder Juan Sebastian Veronís comeback from a knee injury has been put back. The Argentina international was due to return to action Thursday night in a reserve clash with Leeds after treatment in Italy.
Veron has not played since suffering the problem during the Premiership match with Leeds last month, although United remain hopeful he will be fit to face Real Madrid next week.