Perhaps for the first time in their long, one-sided and often bitter rivalry, when Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger face off in opposing dugouts on Saturday it will be the Portuguese under the most intense pressure. Wenger has failed to come out on any of the 14 competitive occasions in which he has locked horns with the Portuguese, yet it is the Frenchman who will go into their first showdown at Old Trafford in better spirits.
Arsenal is unbeaten in 16 games in all competitions dating back to the opening game of the season and sits two points off the top of the Premier League. Manchester United, meanwhile, lie six points further back and Mourinho is fighting against not only disappointing results and performances but a seeming inability to stop provoking dissension in his own dressing room.
A 3-1 win at Swansea City ahead of the international break should have provided a much-needed boost after a run of just two wins in seven games. Instead, Mourinho used the post-match cameras to not-so-subtly accuse Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw of failing to put themselves on the line for the team when not 100 percent fit.
However, with Shaw still coming back to full fitness after a devastating double leg break last September and it later transpiring that Smalling had a broken toe, his comments look to have backfired.
As if Mourinho didn’t have enough problems in his dressing room, his captain Wayne Rooney has spent the build up to the Arsenal match apologizing to British officials for a late-night drinking session after England’s win over Scotland last Saturday. According to reports, Mourinho is apoplectic that England backroom staff was present as Rooney drank until the early hours of Sunday morning with hotel guests celebrating a wedding.
The manager who swaggered into Chelsea 12 years ago, ending the reign of Wenger’s then-unbeaten champions, seems a distant memory. The arrogant grin has been replaced with a grouchy grimace. Perhaps the last thing he now needs is to see a man he derided as a “specialist in failure” arrive at his new home and end his superiority.
Still, it is a big game, too, for Arsenal. While much of the aura surrounding Mourinho has, at least temporarily, dissipated, it was Mourinho who still came out on top when they met last September — even as he oversaw Chelsea’s disastrous start to the season.
And Arsenal’s last outing will have left Wenger with disappointment. At home against its weakened local rivals, Arsenal relinquished a halftime lead to only take home one point against Tottenham. In a Premier League title race that looks set to be the most competitive ever and where two points currently separates the top four, every point could be key.
Wenger now has a big decision ahead of Saturday whether to start with top scorer Alexis Sánchez. The forward played for Chile against Uruguay on Tuesday despite just recovering from a hamstring problem and Wenger has revealed he will have to wait to check on his condition before making any decision.
“I see him tomorrow [Friday] morning and I will see if he can be involved in the squad or not,” he said at his press conference on Thursday. "What I will consider is the risk of injury, because he played while recovering from a hamstring injury, and the way he feels as well. On that front you depend on the honesty of the player, how they feel and how they recover."
One man definitely out is Héctor Bellerín, who Wenger has confirmed will miss four weeks after getting an injury late against Tottenham. Fellow Spaniard Santi Cazorla is also ruled out.
For Manchester United, as well as injuries that rule out Smalling and fellow central defender Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be absent suspension. There are also doubts over the fitness of Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Marouane Fellaini.
Prediction: When Manchester United went to take on high-flying Liverpool last month, Mourinho had no qualms about setting his team up to play a spoiling role. And, despite being at home, it would not be a huge surprise if he adopted a similar approach against Arsenal. The absence of Ibrahimovic should offer an opportunity to Marcus Rashford up front and his pace and movement could cause Arsenal’s defense issues. That may be enough to prevent Wenger from breaking his Mourinho duck.
Predicted Score: Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal
Kickoff Time: Saturday, 12:30 p.m. EDT