Fury and passion have gone

Manchester United's French teenage star Anthony Martial (right) warming up with team-mate and countryman Morgan Schneiderlin. While former United winger Lee Sharpe is not enthralled with Louis van Gaal's tactics, he feels the 19-year-old Martial is a
Manchester United's French teenage star Anthony Martial (right) warming up with team-mate and countryman Morgan Schneiderlin. While former United winger Lee Sharpe is not enthralled with Louis van Gaal's tactics, he feels the 19-year-old Martial is an excellent prospect.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ex-Devil Sharpe laments loss of intense battles and personal duels in Arsenal-United clashes

When he was just 19, Lee Sharpe witnessed first-hand the fierce rivalry that exists between Arsenal and Manchester United.

The former United winger was among a mass brawl which broke out at Old Trafford in 1990 that involved 21 players of both teams, apart from Gunners goalkeeper David Seaman.

Since then, there has been a flurry of notorious flashpoints - from Martin Keown taunting Ruud van Nistelrooy over a missed penalty in 2003 to the Battle of the Buffet a year later, to a stormy tunnel confrontation between Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane at Highbury in 2005.

But as the Gunners and Red Devils square off tonight at the Emirates Stadium, Sharpe believes the fury and venom of the fixture has faded.

He told The Sunday Times in an e-mail interview courtesy of property developer Castlewood Group: "The intensity has gone because the playing staff has changed and there are not as many British players who have the passion for the history of the game and the personal duels have gone."

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To Sharpe, what made this such a grudge match in the past were the clubs' emblematic former captains and midfield hard men - Vieira and Keane.

"You'll never replace them," the 44-year-old insisted. "They were great players and fierce competitors. That side of the game is disappearing."

But while things are unlikely to turn nasty in North London this afternoon, there is still much at stake as English Premier League high-fliers United try to fend off the Gunners, who are three points behind them.

However, Sharpe, who won the Premier League thrice and the FA Cup twice with the Red Devils, is still unsure if his former club's ascent to the top was the handiwork of a tactical guru.

He said of Louis van Gaal, who has polarised opinions with his management style: "There's a fine line between genius and madness and I'm not sure which side of the line he's on at the moment.

"I like the players he has but I still think they need to buy a central defender. Also, their build-up play is too slow and gives teams time to regroup and organise."

But the Dutchman impressed Sharpe with a signing that now looks like an inspired piece of transfer business.

Anthony Martial signed from Monaco for an initial £36 million (S$78.5 million) that could potentially rise to £58 million, but the French teenager has since netted thrice in just as many Premier League games.

Sharpe said: "Martial looks the real deal. He's big (1.81m tall), strong, quick and is very composed in front of goal.

"He is only 19 so will go through some sticky spells, but if he and the manager can manage these situations well then I see no reason why he can't be a superstar."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'FURY AND PASSION HAVE GONE'. Print Edition | Subscribe