Why Wenger has been an admirable adversary
It is 1 September 1996 and Manchester United are the undisputed kings of English football.
After ending the 26-year wait for the title in the first year of the Premier League, Alex Ferguson's Reds have shown no sign of letting up. Two Doubles in the past three seasons and arguably, in 1994/95, only Eric Cantona's suspension, Ludek Miklosko's last-day heroics and an FA Cup final hangover against Everton prevented a third such haul.
A new kid on the block, David Beckham, had even taken to scoring goals from the halfway line and, despite a pair of entertaining home draws with Everton and Blackburn Rovers, it was probably only a matter of time before United eased into top spot in the division again. We did just that on 14 September.
I remember some reports prophesying that the club would dominate for years as we vied for the old Division One title in 1991/92. They proved premature as Leeds United instead took the championship but there was the feeling Ferguson had found the magic formula and the trophy room desperately needed extending.
Arsene Wenger's appointment at Arsenal in 1996 did have a profound effect on the game here. For all the 'Arsene who?' questions, it was a masterstroke by vice-chairman David Dein and shook things up to such an extent that I recall Sir Alex once complaining that this guy, who had just come from Japanese football, was not in a position to tell us what we were doing wrong in England.
Was the boss rattled? Possibly not at the early stage. United won the league again that year but the Gunners finished third and were improving. Come 1997/98, and it was the Londoners who were the undisputed top dogs, doing a Double of their own after beating the Reds to the title by a single point.
The 1-0 loss to Marc Overmars's goal on 14 March was the turning point as Wenger's men reeled the long-time leaders in and many talked of complacency after such free-scoring form by the Reds earlier in the campaign. That might be harsh on United, the reality was there were new bona-fide pretenders to the throne and the gauntlet had been thrown down.
The two clubs were expected to jostle for the top honours again in 1998/99 and Arsenal's comfortable 3-0 hiding at Wembley in the Charity Shield, with new signing Jaap Stam struggling against Nicolas Anelka and company, laid down a marker. As was the case with every challenge he faced in his long and distinguished managerial career, Sir Alex met it. Head on.
What happened next is the stuff of legend. The Reds were forced to improve to such an extent that not only did we see off the Gunners in the league and FA Cup, after the most thrilling of epochal semi-final replays that will forever live in the memory, but we used the momentum to conquer Europe too - landing the European Cup for the first time since 1968.
Would this have happened without Arsenal raising the bar and ensuring there could be no cruising to glory at domestic level? It is impossible to say but Wenger became a serious adversary and, though the battle had been won, the war was not yet over. In the following two seasons, United finished well clear of the second-placed Highbury side in the table before the next great Wenger side lifted the title with Thierry Henry its irrepressible spearhead.
The greatest FA Cup tie ever article
After we were drawn against Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth round, revisit the 1999 tie that may never be matched.
A match for the ages Gallery
On the pitch and inside the dressing room on a spectacular night of drama.
Driven to regain the crown, Sir Alex's charges did just that in 2002/03, only for the Invincibles to respond by setting an historic benchmark by going the league season unbeaten to deservedly take all the plaudits a year later. And then came a new threat - Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. The landscape changed again and United were left behind.
When once it seemed the team could afford a slowish start, only to motor into top gear at the turn of the year, now it was imperative to hit peak form from the outset or be cut adrift. Mourinho's powerful and ruthless Blues side dominated two consecutive Premier Leagues, before Sir Alex steered his Reds back to the summit in 2006/07. Rising to the top again.
Arsene Wenger raised the bar. Jose Mourinho raised the bar. The competition their great sides provided forced United to get better. Without such worthy rivals, the drama would have been far less intense and certainly not as rewarding when the challenges were eventually overcome.
So I hope the Frenchman is afforded the respect he clearly deserves at Old Trafford this weekend. Nobody has taken on Manchester United from the dug-out as many times as the 68-year-old and he will always be intrisically linked to our story, particularly around those classic contests which had bite and passion. The sort of things that we all admire about our great game.
United/Arsenal this weekend. Still a fixture I always look towards, and the final time Wenger will be in the opposing dugout as Gunners boss. No doubt he'll get an excellent reception from the Old Trafford Faithful, but as soon as that whistle blows, it's business as usual. #mufc pic.twitter.com/kL6T5wSFsu— OldTraffordFaithful (@OTFaithful) April 26, 2018
Hope the @ManUtd fans give Arsene Wenger the respect he deserves on Sunday. The battles between United and Arsenal, Ferguson and Wenger, contributed to the best @premierleague years, and brought out the best in both teams. What a rivalry! #Wenger #EPL #MUFC #AFC— Richard Cowling (@RPCowling) April 25, 2018
Some may love to hate our rivals in the heat of battle, when the tension is at its highest, but, in reflection, we must acknowledge their competition is the most enriching part of this wonderful game. And Arsene Wenger has been the most marvellous of adversaries.
The opinions expressed in this article are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United.