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When it comes to averting a crisis, the Frenchman need only look at his great rival

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Arsenal’s match with Tottenham may have been a prelude to the Oscars, but it could have more far reaching consequences than any movie. History does not always repeat itself, not in exact details, but Arsenal’s demolition of Tottenham did take me back to the 2001-2002 season. I believe it has lessons for us.

Then, everyone was convinced Manchester United’s great run under Sir Alex Ferguson had come to an end. For a start, he had said he was going at the end of the season. The season had barely got underway when, on 28 August, Sir Alex Ferguson sold Jaap Stam to Lazio for £15.3m. It came a week after Stam’s book Head to Head was sensationally serialised in the Daily Mirror. He described how Ferguson had tapped him up when he was at PSV and also advised players to dive for penalties.

United furiously denied these revelations had anything to do with Stam leaving. The word from the club was there were doubts about his fitness, he had not quite recovered from an injury, he had made a poor start to the season and there had been an offer for the player in the summer, and when Lazio came back, the deal was done. But the public perception was that Stam had upset the boss and had to go.

One player still at United then added fuel to the fire by criticising his team mates. Roy Keane, never slow to voice his opinion (the previous season he had described United’s supporters as heartless prawn sandwich eaters) now lambasted his fellow players, in particular the older, established players. Very simply, the Irishman’s view was they were not pulling their weight. This, he was convinced, was the reason for the slump in form.

And what a slump, losing to Deportivo de La Coruña in Europe. Four days later on September 29, Manchester United came to Tottenham. I have rarely seen such a gathering of Fleet Street’s great and good. They were at White Hart Lane to write obituaries for Ferguson. By half time you could write the script. Tottenham were 3-0 up and in such command that it seemed United supporters might as well go home.

Just as well they stayed. For in what statistically was the greatest comeback in United’s history, Ferguson’s team scored five and won 5-3. Tottenham were lucky, as they say, to get nil in the second half.

David Beckham celebrates the completion of the comeback in 2001. Image courtesy of PlayUp

You do not have to look hard to see the similarities between Arsenal vs. Tottenham. For Stam, read Cesc Fàbregas, replace Deportivo de La Coruña with AC Milan, add the defeat at Sunderland and consider the criticisms that past players made of Arsene Wenger and you have Arsenal coming into this match in even worse shape.

The difference is that we are well into the second half of the season, while back in 2001-2002, much of the season stretched before us. So while Ferguson hailed it as the best away victory of his entire reign for many months afterwards, it did little to dispel the feeling that the players were aware they were playing for a manager who was not only going, but seemed to have lost his touch. Ferguson bought Juan Sebastián Verón for £28m, then United’s costliest player. To fit him in, there were changes to the team formation which did not seem to work and he proved Ferguson’s worst buy.

In November, after a defeat at Liverpool, the Times headlined its report, “The day Ferguson’s empire began to crumble”. The report went on to ask if it was “a season too far, a fight too many for the ageing heavyweight”. On December 8, United lost at home to West Ham, 1-0, leaving them ninth in the table and eleven points behind Liverpool. But then they went on an eight-match winning run and did not give up hopes of retaining the title until the penultimate game of the season. Their loss 1-0 at home to Arsenal meant the Gunners became champions.

The lesson here for Wenger is, if he is to rescue his season, he just does not have the time to pause as Ferguson’s men did in 2001-2002. If he can push on, I do not see any reason why Arsenal cannot overtake Tottenham and get to third. As for Spurs, they have a great chance to prove that the steely determination that was so evident this season has not completely collapsed. And who better to prove it against than Manchester United, the next visitors to the Lane.

No, I do not expect a 5-3 win, but given the drama we got at the Emirates, I would not bet against it. That is what makes sport always so fascinating and always so much more riveting than even the best of movies.

      

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