Successful seasons are often born out of adversity, bitterness even, that fosters an "us against them" attitude. It happened, though I'm too young to remember it, in the title winning 90/91 season, when an almighty ruck involving pretty much every player on the pitch broke out at Old Trafford. Arsenal were docked points as a result, but proceeded to lose a single game on their way to winning the title. It happened, again at Old Trafford, in 03/04, when Ruud Van Nistelrooy paid for helping get Vieira sent off. After karma decreed he smash his last-gasp penalty against the bar, he was set upon by a bunch of rabid, vengeful, and most of all of delighted Arsenal players, most memorably Martin Keown. Hefty bans were handed out but battle lines had well and truly been drawn, and the censure from the powers that be only seemed to harden Arsenal's resolve. This time no games were lost on the way to the Premiership trophy.
Now, there is adversity and bitterness again, and what do we see looming on the horizon but another potentially definitive trip to Old Trafford. Pundits, even managers, will tell you that it's too early in the season for any game's outcome to be decisive, but I disagree when Arsenal are involved, and to an extent this United team aswell. Even the best Wenger sides have had a swaggering confidence that can, it seems, be easily undermined by one bad day. Again, an Old Trafford example is instructive. After the aforementioned unbeaten season, and with Arsenal, in my opinion, playing their best football in all of the Wenger era, the run went up in smoke on a fiery Sunday in Manchester. cold logic would have dictated that that game should not have shaped Arsenal's season- they were not outplayed but effectively cheated by a spineless performance from the habitually useless Mike Riley, and Rooney's dive in particular. But the bitterness was too much, and Arsenal embarked on a rotten run that saw the season fall apart. Mourinho's chelsea won the title that day.
This particular Arsenal team is playing with an undeniable swagger at the moment, but questions abound over their big-match character. Wenger likes to bang on about our unbeaten league run in the second half of last season, but it was ended by four chastening defeats, two each to chelsea and United, in which a chasm seemed to open up. There are demons to be exorcised this season, and if the process is to begin tomorrow, it will have to do so without Fabregas. It occurred to me the other day that while Henry was often said to carry Arsenal, a fair few impressive results were secured without him, most obviously against United at Old Trafford- in 2002 to win the title, the season after in the FA cup (though he did come on as a sub), early in 06/07 when Adebayor struck the winner. Fabregas seems to me a different story. It's not that he always stands out in big games- he was fairly anonymous in the FA cup semi against chelsea, for instance, as well as the poor showings against United in the champions league- but I worry about what his absence does, psychologically, to his teammates. For Song, Denilson and Diaby especially, this game is going to be a test of mettle.
But there is also a sense at the moment that there is not the fear factor regarding United that we usually take for granted. This is mostly due to Ronaldo's departure, and the attendant notion that with United's weaponry shorn of his cutting edge, their prosaic midfield is finally being shown up as incapable of really dominating games. If they lose to Arsenal, they will surely struggle with self-doubt, and Ferguson will have to call on all his semi-mythic resources to pick them up for another successful title tilt. Nani and Valencia, if selected, will be men to watch. Ferguson's return to 4-4-2 means that wingplay is paramount as it was to his dominant teams of the 90s. We've already seen this season that Rooney has added aerial prowess to his portfolio. Then again, I've a feeling that Arsenal's good performances, allied to memories of that champions league cakewalk last season, will convince Ferguson to shore up his midfield- carrick, Fletcher, Anderson- and play Rooney and probably Valencia, maybe Nani, either side of Berbatov. In the games mentioned United's midfield three destroyed Arsenal's; it was embarrassing.
As I said earlier, there is adversity and bitterness. No Fabregas means that Arsenal will be viewed as slight underdogs despite their more assured start to the season. And the talk of Eduardo receiving a two-match ban from UEFA for his dive has Wenger spitting venom. I know that I championed the cause of bans for divers but it is unfair to single out one man just because an outclassed and angry celtic got their knickers in a twist over something fairly inconsequential to the outcome of the tie. As Arseblog says, how can a yellow-card offence in a match become an automatic suspension afterwards? The rules have to be changed, and THEN enforced. And there have been so many more worthy scapegoats than Eduardo in the recent past. call me paranoid, but there are plenty of teams and individuals who you'd struggle to imagine receiving this kind of treatment. But if it brings the lads closer together and leads them to fight that little bit harder this season, a two match ban for Eduardo will be well worth it.