|Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger reacts as he takes his seat before their English Premier League soccer match against Liverpool Saturday afternoon. (REUTERS)
Sunday afternoon in England and, appropriately enough, shortly before high noon in Toronto, there is another hand-to-hand fight between two of the Premier League’s most celebrated managers, the relentless Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United and Harry Redknapp of Tottenham Hotspur.
Ferguson is chasing down his 13th title while Redknapp, after a remarkable revival of the North London Spurs, has most of the sporting nation’s attention while deciding whether he has the appetite for the England coaching job abandoned by $9 million-a-year Fabio Capello last month.
But if the game at White Hart is filled with different kinds of pressure, the battle of wits on the sideline may not seem quite so compelling in the wake of the collision which came Saturday.
It was between Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, the man whose reputation was beginning to look so tattered it might just have emerged from that old Enron shredding machine. However, in mid-afternoon it had been refurbished to the point where it was beginning to glow.
Last week here we were prepared not to bury Wenger but maybe acknowledge finally that he had been separated irretrievably from the brilliant years which preceded his team’s losing appearance in the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona.
It is now seven years since Arsenal won a trophy and last weekend the worst fears about the team’s decline seemed to be fulfilled as Spurs invaded the Emirates Stadium with some early brilliance. Redknapp’s team took a two-goal lead and Wenger had the appearance of a man who had looked into the future and been harrowed by what he saw,
At the moment, though, that seems like the remnant of a bizarre nightmare. Not only did Arsenal fight back against Spurs, they produced some of their old trademarked artistry in the 5-2 triumph — and Robin van Persie, the deadly Dutch striker, scored one of the most brilliant goals of this or any other season.
He did it again to stun the Liverpool crowd Saturday. He did it twice, in fact, and both goals carried a class rare in any corner of the world game. First he ran into the box to head home a fine cross from full back Bacary Sagna that equalized an early own goal. Then he collected an exquisite lob from midfielder Alex Song to drive the ball instantly past Liverpool’s startled goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
It was the kind of goalscoring that once had English soccer profoundly in the debt of the tall, aesthetic Frenchman Wenger as he released such sublime talents as Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas. Now, though, he was celebrating not old, stale glory but the astonishing possibility that Arsenal might indeed be stepping out of their tailspin.
It hardly seemed possible after crushing defeats in the Champions League by Milan and Sunderland in the FA Cup but Arsenal were suddenly a team of coherence who might just be stabilizing to the point where they would claim their 16th straight qualification for the Champions League.
Dalglish, the iconic Liverpool manager, had talked of such lofty ambition after last weekend ending his club’s six year barren run with a rather fortuitous triumph over Cardiff City, who reside a league below the Premier League, but that was made to seem like a fantasy when Van Persie produced more evidence of his razored cutting edge.
Liverpool had mountains of possession but they never touched the certainties of an Arsenal suffused with new confidence that they can hold off London rivals Chelsea for the fourth Champions League qualifying spot.
Wenger said, “Of course I’m delighted that the players have shown such determination — and quality — in the last two games. Of course you have doubts when you get some bad results but I have never stopped believing in certain principles. One of them is that you should never compromise on how you believe the game should be played. Yes, I do feel pride. In football you fight for vindication every time you play but certainly some times are better than others.
“This is a good time, for sure.”
Good for Wenger, Arsenal, and, whatever happens Sunday, no doubt for English football which will never be so strong that it can afford to lose the touch of a man for whom football without a hint of beauty is like a meal without wine or a day without sunshine.
Saturday, for sure, there was an old warmth in the wintery air.
JAMES LAWTON WRITES FOR THE INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS IN THE UK