Commentary

Arsenal can still spoil United's hopes

Updated: April 29, 2011, 9:48 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Arsene Wenger is a free man. No more hair-pulling, bottle-kicking, bottle-throwing or glancing in exasperation at right-hand man Pat Rice. He can presumably now shake hands, too, with opposing managers. It's all good.

Yes, the stress of the title race is all but gone.

Sunday's game against Manchester United was supposed to determine this season's Premier League champion. Instead, another almighty collapse by the Gunners means that only one team has anything to play for at the Emirates Stadium -- unless, of course, fighting for the second spot qualifies.

With his team nine points off the lead with four rounds remaining, Wenger was busy answering questions about the summer, and in particular the status of long-standing Barcelona target Cesc Fabregas, in his prematch briefing Thursday.

That's stress of another kind.

"The transfer market is not open yet," Wenger said. "But we do not want to sell our players. We want to keep our best players."

Equally as pressing for Arsenal fans, and former players, in the coming months is whether the stubborn Frenchman will finally splash the cash, adding maturity and world-class performers. "Potential" is a vile word for Arsenal supporters, who have gone six years without seeing Wenger lead his perennially young side to a trophy.

The Gunners couldn't even overcome modest Birmingham City in February's Carling Cup final, a result that Wenger and his fragile troops never recovered from, subsequently bowing out of the Champions League and FA Cup. Last Sunday's 2-1 loss at Bolton was likely the final nail in the Premier League coffin.

"In my day, we had plenty who would go in and say to the manager, 'What's happening here? That's not right,'" wrote Arsenal's revered former striker, the flamboyant Ian Wright, in the Sun. "I don't see many who would do that now, because [Wenger] has shaped their careers, and they don't feel they can question his judgment."

Wenger lamented Arsenal's dropping seven points -- far from efficient -- against Liverpool, Tottenham and Bolton in its past three encounters, extending a dismal spell. Arsenal was in winning positions in the first two, ultimately undone by yet more shoddy defending. But if Wenger's side had found a way to win those two games, as well as beating Bolton, it would have been just two points behind United heading into this weekend's game.

As it is, the match is more about United securing three points to keep Chelsea at bay.

Who knows if United boss Alex Ferguson was taking a subtle swipe at Wenger -- a recent thaw between the two notwithstanding -- when he discussed the importance of leadership this week, singling out Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar. The quartet have made more than 2,000 league appearances combined in their careers, substantially more than Wenger's starting 11 versus Bolton. Van der Sar's halftime speech against Everton last Saturday, Ferguson said, inspired his teammates.

United's soccer hasn't flowed as freely since Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2009, as Ferguson admitted, but the Red Devils have ground out results, this season in particular. Rather than an overabundance of youth sprinkled with a touch of wisdom, as is the case at Arsenal, it's the opposite at United.

Fergie's squad owns a six-point lead over Chelsea, so only a minor miracle would prevent United from claiming a 19th league title -- with which it would surpass its loathed rival, Liverpool.

"We've got enough experience to handle any situation that comes along," Ferguson said.

That will include a "wounded" Arsenal, as Wenger described his side, which will face the Red Devils without the pressure of a title race hanging over its head like the sword of Damocles. If anything, this could bring relief to the Gunners and allow them to compete at their best against United.

"It is important for us to show some fighting spirit, some fighting attitude and some pride," Wenger said. "There is more at stake on Sunday than just the mathematics."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

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