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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 May, 2003, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
Wenger's word games backfire
By Stuart Roach

Arsene Wenger shows the strain during Arsenal's draw at Bolton
Wenger's body language at Bolton spoke volumes

Talk is cheap - but the Premiership title is priceless. The war of words which accompanied the battle for the Premiership title was at best amusing and at worst embarrassing.

But there comes a time when the talking has to stop - and at 1750 BST on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson had the final word.

Arsenal's failure to beat Leeds at Highbury was hardly a fitting end to one of the most exciting title scraps in years. A little like the pre-fight hype to a heavyweight boxing clash that fails to go the distance.

The mind games that exist between Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have gone on since 1997 when Wenger refused to back Ferguson's request for an extension to the Premiership season.

I am still hopeful we can go through the season unbeaten - a frightening thought
Arsene Wenger, 28 Sept 2002

Since then their psychological battles have become legendary, but this season, Wenger may have talked himself out of it.

He claimed as early as September, following a 4-1 mauling of Leeds, that Arsenal could remain unbeaten to the end of the season.

"I am still hopeful we can go through the season unbeaten - a frightening thought," he maintained.

It will go down under the heading of 'things you wish you had never said' - alongside Alan Hansen's 'you don't win anything with kids' comment on Match of the Day eight years ago.

That was at the start of a season in which Fergie's fledglings won the Premiership crown for the first time.

In fairness to Wenger this time around, he only ever said "could" as opposed to "would".

Ferguson's claim that an Arsenal side eight points clear at the top and still going strong in their two favoured cup competitions were over-confident was countered by a statement that confidence is only natural in a team still chasing a treble in March.

But Arsenal became befuddled by their own success. Wenger predicted that the final few months of the season would be like playing a cup final every three or four days.

Clearly, too much champagne can go to your heads.

The pressure of playing two or more big games every week for the final 10 weeks of a season finally got to Arsenal.

Wenger boldly announced in early March that Arsenal could afford to drop five points and still win the title - and that assuming Manchester United won all nine of their remaining games.

Talk in football is not so important, what is important is how well you play and we concentrate on that
Arsene Wenger, 5 March 2003

You didn't need to be a professor of football to work that out, yet Arsenal proceeded to drop nine points in their next six outings (not including Leeds), while United embarked on a carefree run that saw them win seven and draw one of the eight games since that statement.

Crucially, the draw came at Highbury in the game of the season.

To analyse Arsenal's demise too deeply would be to belittle Manchester United's achievement, but there seems little doubt that Arsenal were rattled by United's remarkable and relentless pursuit of the Double winners.

"Talk in football is not so important, what is important is how well you play and we concentrate on that," said Wenger in early March.

"We are confident and determined. We know we have the potential to do what we want to achieve and that's why we ignore a bit what is said outside of here."

Yet that now seems hard to believe having watched a side that displays such wonderful balance lose its wheels in spectacular fashion.

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson (left) and Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger
Ferguson and Wenger have had a long-running battle

Arsenal and United are at a different level from the rest of the Premiership and the margin between the sides is so small that the psychological battle can tip the balance.

And as Arsenal's problems all seemed to come at once, that psychological edge disappeared with it.

There was defeat at Blackburn, crucial late season injuries to Patrick Vieira and Freddie Ljungberg and central defensive problems exacerbated by Sol Campbell's four-match ban.

The pressure was clear to see during the 2-2 draw at Bolton, where Wenger begun the match pristine in jacket and tie but finished half undressed as the Gunners threw away a healthy lead in a cameo of their season.

Ferguson's claim that Arsenal were over confident was betrayed by his own statement that winning the title would be United's greatest triumph under his reign.

A passionate horse racing fan, not even Fergie would have bet on United with any confidence at that stage.

But Arsenal have been overrun in the final furlong - and Wenger must saddle much of the blame.




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