By Sonia Oxley
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Arsenal head to Manchester United this weekend with manager Arsene Wenger talking of strange times and serenity but he is not referring to the fact his Premier League leaders are the favorites for the first time in many years.
It will be the first time in his 17 years at the London club that the Frenchman travels to Old Trafford without great rival Alex Ferguson in the home dugout and it is this rather than his team's five-point lead in the table creating an aura of calm.
"It will be a bit strange," Wenger told a news conference on Friday.
"I will see him (Ferguson), certainly yes ... Now we meet each other only at the big managers' meeting to speak about how we can improve football and not how can Manchester United beat Arsenal or how Arsenal can beat Man United.
"So of course it will be a bit more peaceful and more serene."
For Arsenal, though, there are many more reasons to feel composed ahead of Sunday's encounter at a ground where they have failed to win in the league in their last six attempts, including a humiliating 8-2 thumping two seasons ago.
Holding a five-point advantage at the summit for the first time since February 2008, Arsenal have the rare luxury of a guarantee they will stay top even if they lose while victory would put them a huge 11 points clear of champions United.
Arsenal have lost just one of their 10 league games this season to collect 25 points, while David Moyes' United have already suffered three defeats to sit eighth with 17 points more than a quarter of the way into the season.
Victories at last season's Champions League runners-up Borussia Dortmund and over fellow Premier League pacesetters Liverpool in their last two matches have also helped put Arsenal in a good frame of mind before Sunday's game (1610 GMT).
"We have confidence, but what is at stake is consistency at the top level for us and to be capable of repeating the performances in our last two games, that will certainly be very important for the future of our team," Wenger said.
They are boosted by the likely return from injury of Mathieu Flamini who has been out with a groin injury, while fellow midfielder Jack Wilshere faces a late fitness test after being sidelined with an ankle injury.
With Arsenal's most recent league title coming in 2003-04 and having finished no higher than third in the last eight seasons, it is the first time for several years that this fixture has a truly big-game feel about it.
United manager Moyes said Arsenal's flying start owed much to them having a long-serving manager when last term's top three had new faces at the helm with Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City, Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and him at Old Trafford.
"I think it does show the benefit of having continuity and stability," he told a news conference. "I think that's the benefit Arsenal have had this season."
United endured a stuttering start but have started to find form and go into the game unbeaten in eight matches in all competitions.
Moyes has often said his side had a tough start, facing arch rivals Liverpool and title hopefuls Manchester City and Chelsea in their opening five league matches, while Sunday's game is Arsenal's first against one of last term's top three finishers.
"I said at the start that Arsenal have got the same chance as the rest of us to win the league," said Moyes, who will be without injured striker Danny Welbeck for the game.
"They're in the top position at the moment, their form has been very good and they'll come here in good spirits. But we've had some growing momentum and we want to put on a good show."
Without Ferguson to spice up the meeting with some choice words, United striker Wayne Rooney took it upon himself to remind Arsenal to keep their feet on the ground.
"It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain that (form) because over the last six or seven years they have faded off," he told Sky Sports News.
Wenger was quick to issue a reminder of his own: "Usually after Christmas we have been very strong every season."
(Reporting by Sonia Oxley; Editing by Toby Davis)