Just when Arsène Wenger thought it was safe to head back into English waters, Martin O’Neill looms on the horizon, teeth sharpened, ready for the kill.
Will there be a sinking this weekend?
There is a mutual disliking between the pair that emanated from an ongoing slanging match during the Irishman’s tenure as Aston Villa coach. One Premier League player who dealt with both managers admitted his relief at avoiding a loan recall because the two managers “absolutely hated each other”.
It has already been a woeful week for Wenger, but to see the gyrating O’Neill leaping in celebration having denied his team’s chances of silverware for a seventh successive season could be the coup de grâce for his Arsenal career.
Enmity between the duo emanated from a 2008 Boxing Day Clash at Villa Park when Arsenal surrendered a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2. Both managers had to be separated after Wenger accused O’Neill’s then assistant, ex-Nottingham Forest winger John Robertson, of trying to influence the referee.
Just over a year later in the corresponding fixture, Wenger reignited the feud when he dismissed Villa after a goalless draw as an “efficient English game, with long balls, and very physical”.
It never ceases to amaze how vehement managers get over their side’s playing style and O’Neill could not hide his dismay at the Frenchman, labelling Wenger’s comments an “appalling insult”. He then exited his post-match press conference to confront Wenger in person, eager to stress that he was “not fighting back through a newspaper”.
Tickets are still on sale at the Stadium of Light for the only Premier League tie of the fifth round:
The departing Thierry Henry meanwhile remains optimistic despite Arsenal's mauling in Milan:
The Northern Irishman could not resist delivering a critique ahead of Villa’s following fixture away at Fulham however. “He has an opinion on everything. There is not a subject in this world, political, religious — anything — that he does not have an opinion on,” O’Neill said. “I really don’t mind, I just don’t want it shoved down my throat.”
Ironically for Wenger, his opposite number in the dugout on Saturday today complained that the Stadium of Light pitch “needs looking at next season” because it hampers the red and whites’ passing game. A rejuvenated Mackems have won nine of their 14 games under the ex-Villa coach and have shot up to ninth in the Premier League table, hitting 23 goals in the process.
He came face-to-face with Wenger in the league last week, as Thierry Henry volleyed home a 90th minute winner to give the Gunners their biggest win in the season as they shot up into fourth place but already that is a distant memory for Arsenal after their misery in Milan on Wednesday night.
To say that the FA Cup has gained added significance would misrepresent Wenger’s realism. Vanquishing Milan was feasible but winning the Champions League was as remote as Theo Walcott’s player of the year chances.
Wenger enjoyed a lengthy love affair with the cup when Arsenal won it four times in eight seasons - including the feat of defending the trophy in 2003. But since their 2005 win they have only reached the semi-finals once and have been knocked out by Chelsea, Manchester United (twice) and bruising blood brothers Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City.
Packing steel and now silk seemingly, O’Neill could administer the killer blow by the North Sea.