"He doesn't interest me and doesn't matter to me at all," Arsène Wenger stressed. "I will never answer to any provocation from him any more." "Him" was Sir Alex Ferguson.
In 2005, Wenger and Ferguson's relationship was so toxic the Frenchman challenged the Scot to a fight earlier on that season. Wenger's Arsenal, smarting from two intense defeats to United in the 2004-05 season, were involved in the Battle of Old Trafford (September 2003) and the Battle of the Buffet (October 2004) at the same ground. So bad had it gotten that the police had to intervene to quell the animosity.
The contrast of cultures was instant when Wenger arrived in England in 1996. Ferguson was astonished at the gall of someone who had "come from Japan" and once bemoaned how the Wenger was the only manager not to share a glass of wine with him after the game. While Ferguson visits the cinema once a week, enjoys horse racing, history and politics, Wenger once admitted he ended a dinner date with his wife early because he wanted to be home in time to watch Match of the Day.
The clubs met for a fifth time in 2004-05 season (having met each other in the Community Shield and League Cup) for the FA Cup final. Arguably a more one-sided final than when the previous year's competition winners Millwall arrived in Cardiff, United however contrived not to score and their opponents held on before winning on penalties.
Patrick Vieiera takes exception with Ruud van Nistelrooy after he is sent off in 2003
United fans, disconsolate after the Glazer family's takeover that month, were reminded of the fact by Arsenal fans wearing Malcolm Glazer masks and chanting "USA". The gloomy weather complemented United's own state of mind perfectly, while the Gunners, despite relinquishing their Premier League crown, had ended the campaign with a third FA Cup win in four years.
Three-and-a-half-years later, a watershed moment arrived. Wenger and Ferguson, clad in tuxedos, sat beside one another for a chummy broadcast interview and joked with one another. They looked like Morecambe and Wise. A month later, the two were stood chewing over the fat before a match. Between their clubs.
However cunning Ferguson may be, he is poor at hiding who his enemies are. He used to revel in chiding Wenger from the sanctuary of his press conferences but the admiration he often expresses for him now is an indication of how irrelevant Arsenal are to United. The 2013 champions have now won 10 major trophies since Patrick Vieira signed off his Arsenal career with a cup final winner, while the Gunners are still searching for silver.
When Arsenal suffered their lowest ebb under Wenger at Old Trafford last season, Ferguson, asked about that 8-2 scoreline, seemed more concerned about not offending Wenger.
"We didn't want to score anymore," he said at one point. Watching Arsenal fans, jaws ajar, gained an ally who used to be one of their fiercest enemies. Ferguson's response to Rafael Benítez's treatment at Chelsea last month was subtler, yet insincere. "It's not my style to kick a man when his down."
It was reported earlier in the week some Arsenal fans objected to the guard of honour planned to greet champions United on Sunday, but Wenger has no qualms about it.
"When you work somewhere abroad, you have to respect the culture of the country. That is part of the tradition of English football and I want that to be respected," he stressed. One likely to benefit from the tribute is the Barclays Premier League top scorer and champion, and player of the year-elect who graced the Emirates turf for six years.
Wenger hopes Arsenal fans show respect to Van Persie, although it is unlikely
"I want the player to be respected like everybody else. I always said that for every single player who left, even some of them in much more controversy than Robin van Persie."
Arsenal fans are as likely to respect Van Persie as their club is of winning a trophy this season, but whereas fans' partisanship makes such greetings inevitable, the pragmatic and measured Wenger is realistic. Arsenal used to be like Norma Desmond. They used to be big.