Arsene Wenger wants a “peaceful” ending to his longstanding rivalry with Jose Mourinho as the two adversaries prepare to face off for what could be their last Premier League clash.
However, he might not be ready to accept Mourinho’s offer of a beautiful friendship just yet. Wenger will make his last trip to Old Trafford as Arsenal manager on Sunday, an occasion that brought out some rare compliments from Mourinho in the build-up.
The Portuguese, who has thrown a number of verbal barbs at Wenger since his days at Chelsea, even said the two could be “friends” one day down the line — if Wenger has half as much respect for him as he does for the Frenchman.
Wenger, in turn, seems happy to bury the axe for now, although he wasn’t ready to talk about a friendship when asked about Mourinho’s comments.
“I respect him a lot, and I don’t want to go into individual [comments]. You should leave me a little bit of peace for my final weeks, and not try to push me into a final confrontation,” Wenger said. “I want to go peacefully, with Mourinho as well because he’s a great manager.”
So Mourinho may have to settle for a friendly goodbye for now, although Wenger also warned that his old rival may not have seen the last of him.
“I say goodbye to everybody. In France we say ‘au revoir,’ that means you might see me again,” Wenger said.
Sunday’s game also marks the definite end of an era in terms of the Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry which dominated the Premier League during Wenger’s first decade in charge, when he and Sir Alex Ferguson went toe-to-toe for the title almost every year.
One of Wenger’s defining moments was clinching the Premier League title at Old Trafford in 2002, while perhaps his worst low point was the 8-2 loss suffered at the stadium in 2011.
“We had some great battles over 22 years,” Wenger said. “When I look back now, I realise what a great team they had. When you think that they had [Ryan] Giggs, [Paul] Scholes, [David] Beckham, and after [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Wayne] Rooney together as young players — and you see what Ronaldo and Rooney have done later — it shows you that the challenge was absolutely huge.
“And [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy, and all these players together. They had an unbelievable team. And I think I realise that better with distance, than at the time.”
Sunday’s game will be extra tricky for Arsenal as Wenger may have to rest a number of players ahead of Thursday’s return leg against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semifinals.
It’s the reverse situation from last season, when Mourinho fielded a weakened team at the Emirates and lost 2-0 before going on to lift the Europa League trophy.
Arsenal could be boosted by the return of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, though, and Wenger hinted that he may not rotate as heavily as after previous Europa League games.
“I don’t know yet, maybe it’s better [for his starters] to play. I don’t know, I have to see how everybody responds,” he said.
Wenger also explained why he didn’t make any substitutions in Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Atletico at the Emirates, even after the Spanish side snatched a late equaliser despite playing with 10 men.
“We didn’t look under threat, and we had no strikers on the bench who had the experience,” Wenger said. “I had only [Alex] Iwobi who could come on to be creative. But I felt he was not full of confidence in the last game, so I did not take the gamble.”
Mourinho says he regrets his outspoken comments about Wenger when their bitter rivalry has boiled over.
‘I think he is one of these people who is a voyeur. He likes to watch other people. There are some guys who, when they are at home, have a big telescope to see what happens in other families. He speaks, speaks, speaks about Chelsea.’
He infamously described Wenger as ‘a voyeur’ and ‘a specialist in failure’. The two men were also involved in a physical altercation on the touchline in October 2014.
Asked if he regretted the negative incidents, Mourinho said: ‘Yes I do and probably he also does.
‘There are little things where it would be obviously better without them; some gestures, some words would be better without it. I feel better now without it, no doubt about it.’
Mourinho paid tribute to Wenger for bringing the best out of United and Chelsea down the years, and expressed a wish that United fans give him a fitting tribute on Sunday.
‘I always feel the biggest rivals are our biggest friends because they’re the ones that pushed us to the limit. I think Manchester United fans know that, until 2004 for about a decade, it was between United and Arsenal.
‘It was between Sir Alex and Mr Wenger, and I think that these great teams Arsenal had and the fight shoulder to shoulder with Manchester United made United better and better.
‘I hope he has a good reaction – if not good then not bad at all, and from our club he is going to feel the respect we have.
‘When I arrived in England 2004, Arsenal was the champion and the famous Invincibles. For the next couple of years [our rivalry] was with them, (Dennis) Bergkamp, Thierry (Henry), (Sol) Campbell, amazing team, so again thank you very much for that, they pushed us to the limits. We had big matches, big fights, so thank you so much for that.’