Fergie comes out on top in battle of bosses

Sir Alex Ferguson... master of all he surveys . — Pic. AP-

FRANCE 0 Scotland 1 is not a result likely to be seen any time soon on a football pitch. But it does sum up the outcome of a Premiership title race that, more than any other, has been defined by the ferociously competitive rivalry between the managers of the two main protagonists.

In terms of background and temperament, Alex Ferguson, knight of the realm and master of all he surveys at Manchester United, and his Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger could hardly be more different.

Ferguson is the combustible working class Scot whose footballing apprenticeship was preceded by one in the shipyards of his native Glasgow; Wenger the university educated Frenchman who has never thrown a tea cup in anger.

The pair may be united in their passion for football and for winning but there is no doubting their capacity for rubbing each other up the wrong way.

Ferguson in particular has shown a repeated tendency this season to allow Wenger's pronouncements to get under his skin.

The Arsenal manager's suggestion, back in the heady days of September when his side were sweeping all before them, that they could go through the season unbeaten was one which, at the time, Ferguson was in no position to contest.

But the implied slight to his side was never one the Scot was likely to leave unanswered and six months later, when Arsenal were no longer looking unassailable, Wenger found himself being reminded of that ill-advised boast.

"When you are over-confident, as they (Arsenal) have been, the nature of football is that it comes back and kicks you in the teeth," Ferguson said in early March.

Just in case anyone doubted who he was talking about, he added: "Over-confidence is a failure in some people."

Wenger replied: "I don't know if it's being arrogant or not, I just say what I believe. Do people want me to say we cannot win the title when I know we can. I speak the truth as I see it, so why lie?"

It is exactly that kind of unruffled tone which seems to particularly aggravate Ferguson and may explain why, even before the momentum in the title race had tilted decisively in his side's favour, he was telling anyone willing to listen that this one was going to be special, an achievement to rank even alongside the 1999 Champions League triumph.

"If we win the title this year, it will be our greatest feat yet," he said in late March.

"This has been our biggest-ever challenge, given the triumphalism of Arsenal and the position we found ourselves in where we have had to whittle away at their lead."

Such statements may have been part of a conscious effort to remind his London rivals of the fact that they had let what should have been a winning lead slip through their fingers.

But it is also not hard to imagine the pressure Ferguson was under back in September as his injury-ravaged side followed up their trophy-less 2001-02 season by making their worse start to any Premiership campaign.

Having reversed his decision to retire last summer, a proud 60-year-old whose entire career has been built on winning, suddenly had to face the prospect of his time in the game ending in failure.

"When we had all those injuries and we had to make decisions on them, it wasn't a great moment for this club," Ferguson recalled.

"But we were prepared to take the poison then, hoping that they'd be back for the second half of the season with a clean bill of health. And from the turn of the year they have been absolutely fantastic."

An unbeaten league run that stretches back to December 26 has delivered the eighth title of Ferguson's 16-year reign.

But that is unlikely to prevent him from making major changes this summer.

Even when United have been flying this season, their manager has repeatedly dropped hints that he plans a major overhaul of his playing staff.

Rumours that David Beckham and Ryan Giggs will be sold refuse to go away and Ferguson will need funds if he is to capture Brazil's Ronaldinho from Paris Saint Germain and the top quality striker he wants as back-up or a foil for Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Ferguson may have spent most of the season depicting his side as the underdogs, but in financial terms they are playing in a league above Arsenal and it will take every ounce of Wenger's astuteness to ensure his rivalry with the United manager is sustained into next season and beyond.