New Blue Threat Fires Up Two Old Foes; Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson's Response to Being Deposed by Chelsea Could Provide the Game with a Final of the Highest Quality

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ARSENE WENGER bristles with indignation at the suggestion that Chelsea's dominance of the domestic game has reduced tomorrow's FA Cup Final to an end-of-season sideshow.

For the best part of a decade, before the arrival of Roman Abramovich and his considerable fortune, Arsenal and Manchester United carved up each season's goodies with undisguised glee and little regard for those simply unable to compete at the highest level.

Times have changed.

Chelsea are now the dominant force and, while they luxuriate in the glow of their remarkable success, the FA Cup Final will provide us with the chance to assess where their main challenge will come from next season.

One of the by-products of the emergence of the Premiership champions as a third major force has been the recognition by Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson that there are now more urgent issues than the bitter feud generated by a series of high-profile Arsenal-United clashes.

They must know that the intensity of their rivalry has in a sense cleared the path for Jose Mourinho's domination of the Premiership. Arsenal finished 12 points behind the champions with United 18 points adrift.

For both Wenger and Ferguson, a new focus is required if either is to have any realistic chance of challenging for the Blues' crown next season.

In the context of the Premiership, the Arsenal-United meetings now have little more relevance than the Arsenal-Tottenham derby or the all-Manchester clash between United and City.

"We have a third competitor in there now," said Wenger. "I expected for a long time that it was going to be Liverpool. They have won 18 League titles in their history so they will certainly come back some day.

"But Chelsea look to be the third force, if not the first, at the moment. It will make it very interesting next season. I feel they could dominate because they are financially a 'doped' club.

They have unlimited financial resources to enhance their level of performance. It's a kind of doping.

"It puts a pressure on the market that is not very healthy. They can go to Steven Gerrard or Rio Ferdinand and offer twice what they earn."

Arsenal and United are faced with a choice. They can either shrug with indifference and moan about an uneven playing field or they can accept Chelsea's challenge and focus their attentions on restoring the pecking order as it existed pre-Abramovich.

There's no doubt that they both have the players and the experience to sustain a head-to-head fight with Chelsea for the title. These are two of the great clubs of English football and neither will happily accept operating in the shadow of the nouveau riche from Stamford Bridge.

Among their impressive list of battle honours, Arsenal and United share the record for the most FA Cup Final appearances. Both are featuring in their 17th final tomorrow. United have won 11 times, Arsenal nine.

Ferguson, of course, won the Cup for a record fifth time last season when United beat Millwall 3-0 in Cardiff 's Millennium Stadium. …


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