This was not what Arsene Wenger envisioned as part of his long good-bye.
After a disappointing draw has left Arsenal with much work to do in the second leg of their Europa League semifinal next week at Atletico Madrid, Wenger begins his final four Premier League matches with the Gunners against his most vexing foil in the coaches’ box in Sunday’s clash with Jose Mourinho and Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Wenger’s first match in charge after announcing he was leaving the London club at season’s end was a 4-1 victory over derby rival West Ham United last Sunday. Thursday’s Europa League first-leg semifinal versus Atletico at the Emirates, however, was the match everyone cared about as Arsenal (17-6-11) continued their last push to get back into the Champions League for next season the way Manchester United did last year.
For 80 minutes, things had broken right for the Gunners, who played with a man advantage after the 10th minute following a pair of yellow cards to Atli defender Sime Vrsaljko and the expulsion of coach Diego Simeone shortly thereafter. Just after the hour, Alexander Lacazette broke the scoreless deadlock with a towering header into the lower right corner of the net, and Arsenal continued to show purpose in looking for a second.
But it all came horribly undone eight minutes from time. Defender Laurent Koscielny horribly misplayed a long ball over the top which allowed Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann to advance in the penalty area 1-on-1 against David Ospina and round the keeper before scoring a vital away goal that completed the scoring in a 1-1 draw.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating,” Wenger admitted post-match. “We had not to force it. We were 1-0 up and the second goal could have come even in the last five minutes. You have to stay 1-0 up and after that everything is open.
“The only advantage of that result is we know exactly what we have to do over there. We have nothing to lose. We have to go there and really play to win the game.”
The result means Arsenal must score at least one goal at Wanda Metropolitano next Thursday to advance to the final, an incredibly daunting proposition considering the Spanish side have conceded just nine goals in 26 matches there across all competitions and also posted 11 consecutive clean sheets as part a 1,007-minute shutout streak at “The Wanda” since last conceding in a 1-1 draw against Girona on Jan. 20.
The result also means Wenger will likely have to rotate his side for this match to save his star players for next week, which all but condemns the Gunners to finish no better than sixth – their worst showing in Wenger’s 22 seasons in charge – in the Frenchman’s farewell as they try to hold off Burnley, who lurk four points back while having played one more match.
All of this, however, is little more than filler considering Sunday will likely be the final time Wenger and Mourinho match wits in the Premier League. The relationship between “Le Professeur” and “The Special One” has always been a favorite of the English media, especially when it descends into the two trading pointed barbs and insults. The apex, or nadir, depending on one’s point of view came most famously in February 2014 when Mourinho lashed out at Wenger and called him “a specialist in failure” after the Gunners boss said Mourinho was playing down his title chances with Chelsea in 2014 because of his “fear to fail.”
They hit a boiling point later that year when Wenger shoved Mourinho after the Arsenal manager was complaining to referee Martin Atikinson over a foul by Chelsea captain Gary Cahill.
Wenger did not get his first Premier League victory over Mourinho until a 2-0 victory over Manchester United last season, ending a 12-match winless spell that included seven draws and five defeats. Including a Community Shield victory Mourinho gave little care about, Wenger has just two victories in 18 overall matches (2-8-8) against his Portuguese counterpart, who notched his most recent victory in their head-to-head rivalry with a 3-1 triumph in the reverse fixture at the Emirates on Dec. 2.
Unsurprisingly, Mourinho has offered Wenger glowing respect ahead of their final meeting, telling Sky Sports News, “If he respects me even 50 percent of what I respect him we can even be friends in the future. I have lots of respect for him. But the reality is that he was at Arsenal, he was the champion and I came to the country in 2004 and wanted to steal his title. That’s football.
“But in the end I respect him a lot, I tried to show that in the past couple of years there were no problems at a different stage in my career with a different profile.”
Whether that is because he no longer viewed Wenger as a viable title threat, similar to how United predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson did over nearly the final decade of his time at Old Trafford, was left unsaid, but Mourinho cannot be bothered too much with sentimentality during this run-in.
The Red Devils (23-5-6) will secure Champions League play for next season with a victory in this match, while a draw will all but mathematically do the same since they are 11 points clear of fifth-place Chelsea with four matches remaining. Manchester United took a step out of league play last weekend, reaching the FA Cup final with a 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium on April 21 as goals by Alexis Sanchez and Ander Herrera on either side of halftime negated an early goal by Spurs’ Dele Alli and gave Mourinho a chance to win his third title in two seasons at Old Trafford after lifting both the League Cup and Europa League trophies in 2017.
Sanchez, of course, is the other sidebar to this match as he faces his former teammates for the first time since his contentious January move from the Emirates. The Chile international has three goals and five assists in 14 matches across all competitions since moving to United, but at times has struggled to find his spot in Mourinho’s attacking plans behind Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford.
“It is very different here. I think United is a club with more history and we want to win more trophies next year,” Sanchez told MUTV in a clear shot across Wenger and Arsenal’s bow regarding the gap in the two clubs’ ambitions. “We need to keep progressing; United is a big club, to which I am still adapting and I’m looking forward to giving everything I’ve got next year and aiming to win everything there is to win.”
The player who went in the opposite direction as part of Sanchez’s move, attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, is not expected to play for Arsenal due to a knee injury. Former United winger Danny Welbeck, however, could feature depending on how much recovery time needed after playing the full 90 minutes Thursday.
United’s victory in London served as microcosm in the styles of both Wenger and Mourinho. The visitors struck twice in the first 11 minutes, taking advantage of awful mistakes by Arsenal’s back line as first Antonio Valencia then Jesse Lingard scored.
Arsenal then dominated the proceedings as they got one back through Lacazette shortly after halftime as part of a performance in which they finished with season highs of 14 shots on goal and 33 overall. United, though, put the game out of reach on a counter finished by Lingard in the 63rd minute, then withstood playing the final 16 minutes with 10 men after midfielder Paul Pogba got a needless red card for a studs-up challenge on Hector Bellerin.
The teams have split the last nine matches (3-3-3) across all competitions, but Arsenal have just one win in their last 14 visits in all competitions (1-3-10) to the “Theatre of Dreams.”