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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 May, 2003, 17:52 GMT 18:52 UK
United win test of strength
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer

Ferguson has won the battle of wits

Manchester United's dressing room was a scene of disharmony and disappointment - the team in turmoil and the manager in a fury.

It was 15 February 2003 and Arsenal had strolled to a comfortable 2-0 FA Cup fifth round win at Old Trafford.

Manchester United had lost gracelessly as Arsenal kept their nerve - and more importantly the ball - in a fashion far superior to their bitter rivals.

Sir Alex Ferguson, stung by the manner of defeat, lashed a boot across the dressing room, but only succeeded in causing injury and inflicting humiliation on the country's most high-profile footballer.

David Beckham required stitches to a cut eye - but the wounds to United's season appeared far more damaging.

Arsenal were easing away from Manchester United in the Premiership and had delivered a psychological blow in the FA Cup.

And yet, in many ways, it was the start of the United fightback. Out of adversity came title triumph.

Arsene Wenger left Old Trafford more confident than ever Arsenal would repeat their Double, leaving United's spirit broken.

He, and indeed most of football, would have found it inconceivable that United would restore their title supremacy by the end of the season.

But United are deserved champions after displaying a mental strength and footballing resilience - as well as brilliance - that ate away at Arsenal's seemingly unbreakable confidence.

And in Ferguson, United had a manager who doggedly refused to listen to the constant messages that the title was Highbury-bound again.

He utilised his tried and trusted mind games on Arsenal and Wenger, but United's title has been fashioned in the style of champions, based on more traditional methods than psychological warfare.

They have strung together a magnificent run after the turn of the year, and have got results when the pressure was on.

And in Ruud van Nistelrooy, they have had a striker who possessed the ruthlesseness even Arsenal's magnificent Thierry Henry failed to match when it mattered most.

Whereas Arsenal struggled to kill teams off and preferred to play football with a flourish but not necessarily the finish, United were ruthless.

Arsenal lost a lead - and failed to press home numerical advantage - in the 1-1 draw against Newcastle at St James' Park.

United, in contrast, recovered from going behind at Newcastle and rattled up the goals in murderous fashion to win 6-2.

Ferguson's men have been more ruthless, and much to the despair of Arsenal, demonstrated greater mental strength in the run-in.

Arsenal may have played the better football - but there are many facets to the make-up of Premiership winners.

United have shown the greater strength under pressure and greater stamina to last the course.

And now the only flying objects posing a danger to Beckham will be champagne corks.




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