Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho continue one of the most poisonous and one-sided rivalries in English football when Arsenal host Manchester United on Sunday.
A fixture that once enjoyed the cachet of a heavyweight title fight – and often resembled one on the pitch as England’s preeminent teams slugged it out – has been relegated in status with United fifth and Arsenal sixth in the Premier League.
But although it has no bearing on the title race and both clubs are struggling to even finish in the top four, Wenger and Mourinho in such close proximity will add some needle to this weekend’s Emirates Stadium showdown.
Wenger has won only one of 15 meetings with a Mourinho team, and even that came in the Community Shield. What is more, he has endured regular taunts from nemesis Mourinho – a coach with vastly different football philosophy.
Mourinho once labelled Wenger a “voyeur” and on another occasion called him a “specialist in failure”. For his part, Wenger branded Mourinho “stupid”.
This season’s clash at Old Trafford, which ended in a 1-1 draw, passed off peacefully, but the relationship remains frosty.
Were in not for the two managers involved, the significance of Sunday’s fixture would be questionable, although for Arsenal the stakes are higher than for United.
Their hopes of finishing in the top four – something they have achieved 20 seasons in a row – look forlorn. Even five wins from their last five games would leave them relying on slip-ups by Liverpool and Manchester City.
Defeat by United would extinguish any realistic chance Arsenal have of playing in next season’s Champions League — snapping an ever-present sequence stretching back to 1997.
“It’s not in our hands,” Wenger said. “It is a big game. But for us more than focusing on the fact it is Manchester United, a big club and a big rivalry over the years, what is important is to have the chance to achieve our target.
“We have no choice, we have to beat them.”
On paper, fifth-placed United, who are five points above Arsenal having played a game more, have a better chance of finishing in the top four. But that appears to be Mourinho’s Plan B with Europa League glory beckoning.
The Arsenal clash is sandwiched between away and home legs of the semi-final against Celta Vigo, and Mourinho is clearly prioritising the only piece of silverware to elude him, especially as that would ensure a Champions League spot.
“We have two matches in one week against Celta,” said Mourinho, for whom winning the Europa League would complete a set of trophies. “It’s important to have everybody. In relation to the Premier League, I think it’s too late.
“We played nine matches, seven of them in the Premier League (in April), and we had too many problems, too many players absent. We paid the price.”
Wenger, whose future at Arsenal remains uncertain, is not buying any mind games, though.
“We cannot speculate on any weakness of Manchester United. No matter who plays, they will have a strong team out.
“Only a top-level performance will get us the win we want.”