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Wednesday, 8 May, 2002, 21:02 GMT 22:02 UK
Wenger wins mind games
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger
The Frenchman has more than matched Ferguson
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By Phil McNulty
BBC Sport Online chief football writer

Sir Alex Ferguson has mastered the art of the mind games that are played with increasing regularity at the Premiership's sharp end.

Planting the seed of doubt in the minds of opposing managers and players has been his trademark for years.

Perfecting his timing to creep under the skin of a vulnerable opponent, a few well-chosen Ferguson words saw Kevin Keegan, and his Newcastle team, infamously crack in the 1996 title run-in.

But it appears the Manchester United manager has finally met his match.

One man finds himself on the brink of finally establishing psychological and footballing supremacy over the great Scot - and that is Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger.

  Profile: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger

The Frenchman has remained brilliantly aloof from the excesses of Ferguson's outbursts, while remaining equally capable of waging his own war on those who attack the Arsenal cause.

Until recently, his chief weapon was the "I couldn't see it" retort to any controversial moments in Arsenal games.

I can go home at night knowing this team will give every last drop of their blood for me and Arsenal
Arsene Wenger's public confidence in his Arsenal team

But in the race for the title, Wenger's sheer public confidence, backed up by his supremely consistent players, seems to have pierced the previously impregnable Ferguson armour.

It is the climax of a battle that began shortly after Wenger arrived at Arsenal from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan in September 1996.

Wenger espoused the virtues, or otherwise, of the English game, only to be effectively told to keep his nose out of it by Ferguson.

And so it has continued, and with increasing desperation on Ferguson's part as Arsenal ignored protocol my moving inexorably towards the title United regard as their own.

Ferguson has been almost hysterical at times, not least when he ludicrously announced after Manchester United's Champions League exit that they had been the best team in the Premiership since Christmas.

Man Utd manager Sir Alex Ferguson
Ferguson: The master of mind games... until now

Wenger's response was typically articulate, colourful and cutting: "Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home."

Not a jibe at Ferguson's other half you understand, merely an almost sympathetic pat on the head for a man who understood his need to offer support to his own team.

It followed a succession of Ferguson warnings that Arsenal would crack under pressure.

Not so - and the contrast between the two men during the build-up to the Old Trafford showdown could not have been more stark.

Ferguson's build-up has been littered by expletives in press conferences and asterisks in newsprint. Wenger has been measured calm itself.

Domestic domination

Surveying the wreckage of Ferguson's image, Wenger has simply focused on his own team.

"I can go home at night knowing this team will give every last drop of their blood for me and Arsenal," he declared.

Ferguson's irritation stems from the fact that under Wenger, Arsenal now pose a genuine threat to the all-encompassing domestic domination that United, under Ferguson, have enjoyed for a decade.

Arsenal were the one club to seriously interrupt Manchester United's supremacy when they won the league and FA Cup Double in 1998.

Just when Ferguson thought it was safe, they are back - and this time they could be back for good, with the United supremo suddenly confronted by a cerebral footballing figure who might just be too clever for him.

On and off the field.

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