How those title taunts of 2002 are coming back to haunt Arsenal
Formerly the 'big two,' Arsenal and Manchester United face off on Saturday
United is on the verge of winning its record-tying 18th European league title
Meanwhile, Arsenal continues to struggle under the leadership of Arsene Wenger
Before Chelsea had Roman Abramovich's rubles and Rafa Benítez built Liverpool into Champions League winners and English Premier League challengers, Manchester United and Arsenal dominated the EPL throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. On Saturday, the former "big two" face off after having taken contrasting paths in recent years.
Sir Alex Ferguson rode the wave of the José Mourinho-inspired, Abramovich-funded Chelsea successes of the '04-05 and '05-06 seasons to build a new title-challenging squad. The current side -- arguably Ferguson's best ever -- has won the last two EPL titles, a third European Cup and is on the verge of winning a third consecutive EPL title (thereby equaling Liverpool's record of 18 English league titles. Only Barcelona stands between Man U becoming the first team in Champions League history to retain the most Spock-looking of sporting trophies). United goes into Saturday's match on a high.
Contrastingly, the Gunners are like dazed boxers after the beating they received in their past two games against United and Chelsea. A trip to Old Trafford on Saturday to face a United side that's only one point from claiming the EPL title is not the ideal tonic. Arsenal's "We won the league in Manchester" taunts from the '02 season likely will haunt them.
Someone with a name this similar to his team will always be staunchly loyal -- none more so than Arsène Wenger of Arsenal. Since the disbandment of his "Invincibles" side of the '03-04 season (which went the entire season of 49 games unbeaten), the Frenchman has persevered with his project of rebuilding his Arsenal team on the principles of faith in youth and apparent spend-thriftiness.
The Gunners have maintained their position among the top four since the Invincibles season, and they were 14 minutes away from Champions League victory in '06. However, the reality is that they haven't won a trophy since the FA Cup final win over Man. United in '05. Four years is a long time to go trophy-less for Arsenal fans -- their longest title drought in 21 years -- and the locals are starting to down their olive-infused feta ciabattas in disgust, arguing their club's reliance on youth is hampering their chances of silverware.
So is Wenger's faith in his fabled youth project really the reason for his lack of transfer activity, or is it a genuine lack of funds? The Gunners have heavy debts hanging over them in the shape of the state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium. According to the Daily Telegraph, Arsenal's debt generates annual costs of around $26 million in interest alone.
Wenger's comments this week hinted that money isn't plentiful at the Emirates. "I have nothing against spending money," he said. "We want to manage this club within its resources. If you want to get the club bust, I'm not the person to do that."
Uzbek billionaire and Jabba the Hutt look-alike Alisher Usmanov, who owns 25 percent of Arsenal's shares, has offered an olive branch to pay off a chunk of the club's debt in order to free up transfer funds. Usmanov's shady past means his presence at Arsenal hasn't been entirely welcome. He was denied a position on the board and isn't allowed to participate in key decisions despite his significant investment. The board will see his offer as a way of garnering favor from frustrated supporters.
Reacting to being harangued by angry fans at a shareholders meeting this week, Wenger gave an impassioned defense of his players, but admitted if the trophy drought continues for another two years, his strategy will have failed.
"They are great players and they will show you that they are great players," he said. "If we do not get there next year or the year after, then you can say this was not the right way."
The clock is ticking, Monsieur Wenger -- not just for you, but for the current board's resistance of Usmanov's financial might.