LONDON — The joke doing the rounds as the F.A. Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United approaches is that the kickoff should be put back from3 p.m. until after the 9 p.m. watershed.

Christopher Davies

At the very least there is every justification for the game having a PG rating given the animosity between the players and managers which has been hyped up to breaking point this week.

Only the best refereeing display seen in recent years by Graham Poll prevented the teams’ last meeting, at Highbury in February, from becoming anarchy.

The Premiership’s version of “The Sopranos” has become two footballing families at war and Rob Styles is the man in charge this time at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, though it is becoming a fixture that is almost unrefereeable.

To add spice to a game that is already very hot, the losers are destined to finish the season empty-handed.

Even before the kickoff at the Highbury showdown three months ago, Roy Keane and Patrick Viera locked horns and exchanged unpleasantries in the tunnel.

Witnesses said Vieira cast the first stone with some comments about Gary Neville which the Arsenal captain tried to clarify earlier this week.

“I will not say I intimidated (Neville), I would say I tried to make a point,” said Vieira. “He (Keane) reacted the way I would react if somebody came to talk to one of the Arsenal players — that’s what I would expect.

“It did not surprise me at all, it was a captain’s, a leader’s reaction. I have big respect for him and all the Manchester United players, no doubt about it.”

That respect appears to me more as players rather than people.

Vieira apparently went on to accuse his opposite number Keane of abandoning the Republic of Ireland before the 2002 World Cup. That was in retaliation to reports that Keane had criticized Vieira’s decision to play for France rather than his native Senegal.

“For someone who leaves his team in the World Cup, I think he should keep this kind of remark to himself,” said Vieira referring to Keane’s foulmouthed attack on Ireland manager Mick McCarthy in front of a startled squad in Saipan, the Republic’s pre-2002 World Cup base.

McCarthy was left with little option than to send Keane home, though many believe the then-Ireland captain effectively sent himself back to Manchester.

“He (Keane) does not know my background and I do not want him to make a comment like that because he is not in a good position to say something like that,” said Vieira.

“He walked away from his national team when they really needed him.

“I have nothing to prove to him. He is not from Senegal, he is not from Africa, he will not understand. So it is better for him to look after himself and what he’s doing.

“Even saying what I have just said does not take away the respect I have for him as a player. When I came to England he was the one I was looking forward to playing against because he is the best in the business in his position. I have big respect for him.”

At least Vieira uses the United captain’s name.

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, usually refers to Sir Alex Ferguson as “that man” after the Football Association warned the pair to cease public hostilities.

The two main confrontations between the clubs were both at Old Trafford.

In Sept 2003, Arsenal players were incensed after Vieira was sent off after an incident with Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Dutch striker had a chance to break the deadlock from the penalty spot in the last minute but missed, the visitors taunting van Nistelrooy amid ugly scenes. Football Association charges followed.

In October 2004, van Nistelrooy escaped a red card after a crude challenge on Ashley Cole, then scored a penalty when Sol Campbell was harshly penalized for a foul on what looked like a diving Wayne Rooney. Reports of an ugly exchange in the tunnel with food being thrown led to the match being labeled the “Battle of the Buffet.”

Wenger was later charged by the F.A. for comments made about van Nistelrooy.

And so on to the 2005 F.A. Cup final.

Though Arsenal ended the league season in much better form than its opponents, United has won the last four competitive meetings between the teams dating back to an F.A. Cup semifinal triumph at Villa Park 13 months ago.

Both clubs have injury problems.

Arsenal will be without leading goalscorer Henry, while United suffered a double defensive injury blow this week. Left-back Gabriel Heinze is almost certain to miss out after failing to recover from his ankle ligament injury and Ferguson also revealed Gary Neville is a major doubt with a groin strain.

“Gaby doesn’t want to be ruled out at the moment but I do not see him playing,” said Ferguson. “Gary is a concern because he is not training. We have got medical people working on him and we will give him every chance but it is not looking good.”

Heinze’s absence is likely to see France international Mikael Silvestre start at left-back and Phil Neville replacing his brother at right-back, with Wes Brown partnering Rio Ferdinand in the heart of defense.

THE REACTION WAS predictable with hypocrisy overflowing.

Manchester United fans, the English media and just about everyone it seems does not want Malcolm Glazer to buy the biggest football club in the world.

As Glazer has agreed to a £790 million deal, there seems no way of stopping the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from moving into the other type of football.

The main accusations are that the Glazer family knows nothing about soccer, they are only interested in making money, they will increase ticket prices and sell United’s best players. What balderdash.

A rare voice of reason was that of Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore who believes Glazer has no desire to turn a “Rolls-Royce into a stock car.”

Glazer did not become rich by bungling business deals, while banks tend not to lend people money unless they are confident of the potential investment.

In England we constantly ask “why do successful businessmen come into football and not run clubs on the same lines?”

When it appears someone is going to do just that, he is still accused of being wrong.

The current United regime has increased ticket prices for next season to an extent that causes a mini-revolt among the Old Trafford faithful. And it was the existing board that sanctioned the sale of David Beckham to Real Madrid, the England captain sorely missed down the right side of attack.

What is surprising is that Team Glazer has allowed such bad publicity to continue without playing the public relations game. The media are saying Glazer will do this or that but no one knows because Glazer is almost the Howard Hughes of sport.

Glazer exercised his legal right to buy a public limited company. He is entitled to at least show everyone what he — or rather his son Joel who will be his representative on the United board — can do before being accused of just about everything except halitosis.

STAT OF THE SEASON Everton, which finished fourth to earn a place in the Champions League, was closer to last-place Southampton than title winner Chelsea, points-wise.

Chelsea had 95 points, Everton 61 and Southampton 32.

I thought the Premiership was supposed to be competitive. . .

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