Two reputable men go into battle

Posted by Simon Curtis

A man and his reputation are long-forged and not easily separated.

When then-Arsenal manager George Graham told the press, "It's fine that people hate us. It's part of our history," he was referring in part to the fact that Arsenal were derided far and wide for their penchant for the ugly 1-0 win under his guidance. It was not for nothing that the Highbury faithful began to sing the infamous ditto in honour of that most Arsenal-esque of scorelines.

Under the thin-lipped Scot, a man who liked a well-starched blazer and a tightly knotted tie, success came with heavy weights attached to it. Arsenal were tough, a little too tough, and robust, a little too robust. They tackled like tanks and ran around like a plague of locusts bothering the opposition into mistakes. It was all highly effective and predictably unattractive, but at least you did not need a degree in applied mathematics to fathom out the winning scoreline.

- Report: Hamann: Pellegrini blunder scandalous

These days, Arsenal have undergone something of a makeover. During Arsene Wenger's long and perfumed reign, the side has turned its reputation for dour, strenuously gauged low-scoring wins to delightful tippy-tappy football the likes of which London viewers had seldom seen before. That in recent years it has often gone nowhere in particular while weaving intricate patterns across the greensward has often been considered immaterial. If tickling the fancy of the purists is the aim of football, then Wenger had found the richest of gold seams under the busy streets of Ilsington.

Wenger is alone responsible for this. He it was who skipped down the gangplank off the packboat from afar with odd ideas regarding diet and posture. He it was who persuaded Tony Adams & Co. off the lager-and-pie regime and into aerobics and ballet. He it was who enticed the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Igor Stepanovs to strut their funky stuff in front of the giant mural that had replaced the North Bank without any noticeable difference to the atmosphere.

Arsenal have managed to change again, more subtly this time, into a tippy-tappy team with an end product and becoming well ensconced as the darlings of the press. Witness this week's Champions League games, where, having lost somewhat limply to a game but limited Napoli, thus forfeiting any chance of an easier task in the knockout rounds, you could encounter words such as "strong" and "brave" to describe the Gunners' frankly droopy and leg-weary showing.

Across the Alps in Bavaria, meanwhile, Manchester City were doing to Bayern Munich what no team has done since Kickers Offenbach in 1975 (beat them on home turf after trailing 2-0) and all anyone could find to talk about was the manager's hopeless math. For City fans, still emerging from the ragged and sooty edges of cloud nine, it was an edifying and, one must say, sobering sight.

For City, it sometimes seems the giant wealth that backs them has brought with it a veritable army of ne'er-do-wells whose only aim in life is to perch on the overhead cables and wait for the Sky Blues to mess themselves. Anything positive comes as a result of the riches they are backed with; anything negative is a gross squandering of their silver-spoon position in the football order of merit. They are truly damned if they do and damned if they don't. They are the crass Northern upstarts, with no history and no class, the boss-eyed neanderthals with pimples and halitosis.

As we know, things often come full circle in football. Arsenal's modern reputation, as clean as a freshly laundered bed sheet, is in stark contrast to some of the grubbier goings-on under Graham in the '80s and '90s. This was not only a period of scruffy, ill-tempered gains but also of backhanders for the likes of Norwegian defender Pal Lydersen (what was the point of that, you might ask) and ill-defined tactics that left opponents feeling steamrolled and bent out of shape. There was nothing pretty about Andy Linighan, Ian Selley, Perry Groves, Gus Caesar and the cast of a thousand and one pirates and hod carriers who did their duty in that woolly, ill-focused era that came to be known as pre-Wenger.

Today's Arsenal, sleek and wondrous on the eye, will appear in Manchester this weekend with two things on their mind: First, they must face a Manchester City side that is turning itself into the most obvious of the Gunners' rivals for the title. Second, they must await a Champions League draw that offers exactly the same possible opponents as the Blues (if you swap Dortmund with Bayern). While Manuel Pellegrini emerges from a week where every man and his dog has had a quick word to say about his subzero-level math skills, the erudite Frenchman has miraculously escaped criticism for throwing away Arsenal's chance to face Zenit or Olympiakos next instead of the game's proud princes.

We must not wait long to see what this weekend's confrontation does to enhance or diminish the reputations of Monsieur Wenger and Senor Pellegrini.


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