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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Ferguson turns up heat on Arsenal

By Alan Hansen
BBC Sport football expert

Sir Alex Ferguson's claim that Arsenal "got away with murder" at the end of the goalless draw at Old Trafford last season is an indicator of just how high the stakes are when they meet in the Premiership on Sunday.

Sir Alex Ferguson
It's a sign of this game's magnitude that the rhetoric has started more than a week before kick-off

In days gone by the rhetoric used to start 24 hours before a game.

It is sign of how much this game means in context of the entire season that the seemingly annual exchange between Ferguson and Arsene Wenger started more than a week before the teams walk out of the tunnel.

These sort of verbal games have been played for years, albeit in different styles.

My old Liverpool manager Bob Paisley was fond of praising the opposition or particular individuals in his own shrewd way of gaining a psychological advantage.

Arsene Wenger apparently started the debate by suggesting before they played Birmingham that Manchester United would never again dominate as they had done in the past.

Ferguson responded in style, adding that he thought Arsenal's behaviour after Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty with the final kick of the game at Old Trafford last season was "the worst thing I've seen in sport" .

It certainly didn't look good but those keen to take Sir Alex on have said neither did Eric Cantona launching himself into the crowd at Selhurst Park or Roy Keane leading a posse of United players around referee Andy D'Urso some years back.

Everyone will have a different opinion on the seriousness of these incidents and how they should have been punished.

Some have suggested it is a sign of desperation that Sir Alex has chosen to launch into Arsenal in such a public manner.

|t's a lot easier to play the war of words when your team are 11 points ahead of your rivals

Ferguson used to annihilate Wenger when it came to using the press and the media but Wenger is highly intelligent and has learned to play the game.

I don't think Sir Alex is desperate and he is magnificent at the mind games but what I will say is that it's a lot easier to play these games when you are 11 points ahead of the other team.

This is a "must-win" match for United and Ferguson is probably using every tool at his disposal to set the scene for the game.

It is all about putting pressure on individuals, opposing managers, referees, getting the crowd in the right frame of mind - all the big clubs have done it and we were no exception at Liverpool.

This is a serious, results-driven business and the result of Sunday's game will hugely affect the Premiership's bigger picture, so any psychological ploy is understandable.

When you are building up to a game of this magnitude, it was inevitable that something was going to be said and the headlines are tasty already.

Sir Alex is also clearly still sore about the punishment the FA handed out to Arsenal last season.

It's difficult to evaluate that one - some said it was incredibly lenient and some said it was incredibly harsh.

Some said the FA shouldn't have bargained with them and United's sense of injustice possibly increased with the eight-month ban handed down to Rio Ferdinand.

Ferguson will know that if United don't win on Sunday it's a long way back in the title race - and we won't even be into November.

This is why the psychological battle and the rhetoric will play a huge part before kick-off - and in this case we have two managers in Ferguson and Wenger who know how to play the game.

Expect more verbal exchanges as the week goes on.

Talking of verbal exchanges, it might be time for Newcastle's Craig Bellamy to take a vow of silence after allegedly giving my old Liverpool team-mate Graeme Souness a bit of a volley when he was substituted at Charlton.

Setting aside the fact that, knowing Souness as I do, there will only ever be one winner here, Bellamy would do himself a favour by just getting his head down and playing.

This applies to a player under any manager, particularly a new one.

Bellamy upset Sir Bobby Robson by making a public comment about not sitting on the bench when Newcastle were bidding big money for Wayne Rooney.

And he also created a stir by suggesting he was less than excited by the names in the frame to succeed Mark Hughes as Wales boss.

He is not going to be helping his situation with his new manager if these allegations are true, especially as Souness searches to put his strongest side in place.

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