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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
All in the mind

By Jonathan Stevenson

Date: Sun 24 Oct
Venue: Old Trafford
Kick-off: 1605 BST

A Manchester United-Arsenal encounter would just not be the same without a war of words between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

The now customary slanging match between United's fiery Scot and the Gunners' urbane Frenchman has kicked off in earnest ahead of Sunday's mouth-watering Premiership contest at Old Trafford.

Ferguson fired the first shot by claiming the behaviour of the Arsenal players at the end of last season's Old Trafford game was "the worst thing I've seen in this sport" and that they "got off scot-free".

Wenger hit back by telling Ferguson to "calm down" and added "maybe it would have better if you had put us against the wall and shot us".

It's wrong the league programme is extended so Man Utd can rest up and win everything
Wenger, 3 April 1997

He's a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football
Ferguson's reply, 5 April 1997

The fact that there is arguably more at stake than usual has added more fuel to the fire: if Arsenal avoid defeat they will make it 50 league games unbeaten and remain at least 11 points clear of their fierce rivals.

So why do they do it? Sports psychologist John Kramer believes Ferguson and Wenger use their rivalry to help them relax before an important fixture.

"Sometimes these things can be more a reflection of the levels of anxiety the managers are experiencing," Kramer told BBC Sport.

"It's almost providing them with a release mechanism that they can be involved in these sorts of shenanigans before such a big game - it's just shadow boxing.

"It's a good spectator sport, but in terms of how they'll be dealing with the players it's often a very different script.

They are scrappers who rely on belligerence - we are the better team
Ferguson after Arsenal's 2002 double-winning season

Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home
Wenger's reply

"What they'll have done is had a private word with the players and bought them into the public script - you've got to make sure everybody buys into it as it could affect anyone who picks up the wrong message."

Ferguson has used psychology in his favour for many years to try to disrupt his opponents, most famously when then Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan blasted "I'd love it if we beat them, love it" as his team threw away the title to Man Utd in 1996.

But Kramer believes the 61-year-old has met his match in Wenger with the former Monaco coach refusing to rise to the bait.

He added: "Ferguson is the past master in terms of creating an environment of keeping his players hungry by saying there's always someone out there who wants to get them.

"It's a remarkable achievement when these players are multi-millionaires that he can still try to keep this line going, though whether it works as well as it used to I'm not sure.

I am still hopeful we can go through the season unbeaten
Wenger, 28 Sep 2002

I'm sure they would love to turn the clock back six months - it might come back to haunt them
Ferguson, April 2003 with United top of the league

"Wenger just portrays himself as the arch-technician, someone who rises above these sorts of mind games.

"But what he tries to do is take the psychology out of it - he'll tell his players they are all superb and will attempt to create an environment where they are able to show off their skills without the rest of it."

Though it undeniably adds to the theatre of the occasion, the annual spat between the two will be put to one side when the whistle blows at 1605 BST on Sunday.

In terms of the effect it will have on the result, Kramer believes it will always remain minimal.

"As regards the actual impact these comments will have on the game itself, sometimes these things can be over-exaggerated.

"Even if they'd both said nothing the void would have to be filled because of the high-profile nature of the game.

"It all adds to the drama but I wouldn't read too much into it."

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