There’s a bittersweet quality to the build-up for a clash between Manchester United and Arsenal these days.
All those old war heroes come out sharing their stories from back in the day; back when this mattered; back when this really was the biggest game in town.
Robert Pires has stepped up this week, talking about those “crazy games” when Patrick Vieira did this or Roy Keane said that or something happened with a pizza and, above all, everything was on the line.
This pair won 10 of the first 11 Premier League titles between them. In a seven-year run from Arsenal’s first Premier League title in 1997/98 to their third with the Invincibles in 2003/04, the pair finished first and second in one order or another five times. When they weren’t first and second, they were first and third.
Then Jose Mourinho came along and brought that first Premier League era to an end. The Ferguson v Wenger age was over, and the Ferguson v Mourinho skirmishes began.
Arsenal’s fall was swifter and deeper. While Ferguson managed to carve out another five Premier League titles at United after that initial decade largely because he was absurd, Arsenal have never really looked like picking up a fourth.
Since being runners-up to Mourinho’s first Chelsea title winners in 2005, Arsenal have finished second only once. And that a distant second to the improbable Leicester City fever dream in 2016, a season in which laughter at silly old Spurs finishing third in a two-horse race masks the reality that it was the Gunners at the halfway stage of the season who looked best placed to capitalise on all the proper teams having bad seasons at the same time only for their own mid-season collapse to take them out of contention.
The Gunners haven’t so much as finished in the top four since.
For United, it has now been a decade since Ferguson willed a 13th Premier League title into being and they have not come close to adding to that astonishing tally under the succession of managers who have failed to greater or lesser degrees to emerge from the great man’s enormous Old Trafford shadow. Two second-placed finishes offer some succour, but again conceal the more painful truth; United were 19 points adrift of Manchester City in 2018 and only one closer to Liverpool two years later.
They may not have fallen as far or for as long as Arsenal as Premier League giants, but they are demonstrably not what they once were.
This season was supposed to be the one that changed all that. This season there was supposed to be a proper four-way title fight with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the wheel of a ferociously talented squad that had top quality all over the pitch as long as you skimmed past central midfield fast enough.
The other three members of that quartet have kept their side of the bargain, just two points separating Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool at the top. But then there comes a cavernous gap to the rest, including a now Ole-less Manchester United one place above Brentford in tenth.
That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Arsenal, of course, were an irrelevance. They hadn’t even qualified for Europe last season – a feat so straightforward even Spurs kind of, just about, technically managed to do it. Then they lost their first three games of the season and everyone sort of shrugged.
But they’ve won seven of the 10 games since and now find themselves very much in the top-four picture again.
And so here we are. The days of this being the fixture of the season, one that would determine titles and one that would create stories and incident that would define entire campaigns are gone, but it is once again a hugely relevant and important fixture on its own terms.
Arsenal have been far better than anyone expected, United far worse. The upshot is that they are now the two favourites in what could still in theory be a four, five or even six-way battle for that precious final Champions League spot.
Slugging it out for fourth – with the currently viable prospect that both could miss out to either West Ham or Wolves – is probably not what either expected but it’s where we now are.
If Arsenal win at Old Trafford, they will find themselves in possession of fourth thanks to Brighton’s late equaliser at West Ham on Wednesday night. They will also be eight points clear of their old title rivals.
If United win, they move within two points of Arsenal and three points of fourth with the prospect of spending the rest of the season with an actual proper manager in charge and the damage of a seemingly disastrous start to the season successfully limited.
For both these proud and famous and great clubs, then, this is a hugely important game. This may no longer be a game that can define entire Premier League seasons, but tonight’s clash under the Old Trafford lights is at least once again one that could make a decisive impact on their own intertwined destinies.