The Big Match

Football: Final chapter in epic rivalry between Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho

Wenger, Mourinho face off in their last EPL encounter, with little at stake for the Gunners

As a 22-year reign ends, so does an enduring rivalry. Arsenal's battles with Manchester United have provided the defining feud of Arsene Wenger's glory and gory years.

As the Frenchman pays a valedictory visit to Old Trafford, images of him in the crowd when sent off in 2009, arms spread wide in disbelief as he was barracked and beaten, will be relived.

It is a venue where his wait for a league victory stretches back to 2006 - although, typically, a serial FA Cup winner has triumphed in knockout competitions - which is an indication of how Arsenal have dropped out of title contention.

Yet his first English Premier League crown owed much to a 1-0 success in 1998, secured by Marc Overmars.

His second was actually clinched at Old Trafford. Wenger fielded a weakened team in 2002 but the rested Thierry Henry's deputy, Sylvain Wiltord, scored the only goal.

And Wenger's Invincibles would not have gone unbeaten but for Ruud van Nistelrooy crashing a last-minute penalty against the bar. Martin Keown jumped over the Dutchman in a gloating, provocative reaction and became one of four Arsenal players banned as a result.

It nevertheless summed up the warrior-like nature of Wenger's early teams, which their successors failed to emulate, and instead the undefeated run ended a year later, in the "Battle of the Buffet", which culminated in Cesc Fabregas throwing pizza at Alex Ferguson in the tunnel after United's 2-0 triumph condemned Arsenal to a first loss in 50 league games.

It may have been Wenger's most painful, most contentious loss at Old Trafford, but it was not his heaviest. His side went down 6-1 in 2001 and 8-2 in 2011; that shambles is the only time since 1896 that Arsenal have conceded eight.

Perhaps it was the beginning of Wenger's long last act and came in a decade when he regularly lost to United. He used to have a winning record against them; now 27 defeats outnumber 19 victories.

Yet while he has had highs against United, his experiences of meeting Jose Mourinho are notable for the lows. Wenger has only won two of 18 games against the Portuguese; even those triumphs were comparatively meaningless.

 

Mourinho dethroned Wenger as champion in 2005, branded the Frenchman a "voyeur" and a "specialist in failure".

His more defensive football captured the zeitgeist; the vast spending of his - and Roman Abramovich's - Chelsea wrecked the Arsenal manager's economic model to remain in contention while financing the construction of a new stadium.

Wenger won three league titles before Mourinho came to England. The Portuguese has three and the Frenchman none since.

So if leaving Arsenal will be a huge wrench and Wenger will miss much about a club he rebuilt and reinvented, it is safe to say he will not miss meeting an enemy who combined vitriol with victory.

MAN UNITED V ARSENAL

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2018, with the headline 'Final chapter in an epic rivalry'. Print Edition | Subscribe