Arsenal vs Manchester United – Still the bitterest of rivalries?
Arsenal vs Manchester United has notoriously been a fiery encounter that brings out emotion in all involved. You only need to look back over the last decade to find examples of this. The passion of the players and their desire to win through the hatred of the opposition is what makes this fixture so appealing.
Despite being rivals all throughout the two clubs’ histories, the arrival of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal intensified the emotions. Sir Alex Ferguson, when told of Arsene’s reputation as a ‘professor’ of football said: “They say he’s an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages, I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.”
It was clear from the start that these two were vastly contrasting characters that run their clubs in different ways. Then in April, when the season was reaching its climax, the rivalry of the two managers really kicked off. Wenger complained about fixtures being in Manchester United’s favour to which Ferguson replied: “He’s a novice – he should keep his opinions to Japanese football.” The rivalry and the animosity between the two managers only intensified the bitter rivalry on the pitch.
Their rivalry came to a climax in the much anticipated FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park in 1999. As usual it was the Midfield battle between the two teams that was the most enticing. Keane was sent off for a 2nd yellow card offence with the scores tied at 1-1. The game reached injury time and with the prospect of penalties looming, Viera gave the ball away in the middle of pitch. The rest is history as Ryan Giggs, beating 4 Arsenal men, burst through the Arsenal defence to score a memorable goal. Despair for Arsenal and Wenger, who refused to shake hands with Ferguson which Sir Alex saw as the greatest insult he had faced as a manager.
The clubs met in the penultimate game of the 2001-2002 season with the Premier League title at stake. But, as it so often is with these clubs, it wasn’t just a title at stake it was pride. Arsenal knew they needed a win to complete a memorable season and to do the unthinkable, win the title at Old Trafford and without talisman Thierry Henry. In fact, it wasn’t just winning the title; it was taking it back off them on their own ground with the chance to laud it in front of them. As with so many of these fixtures, the Red Devils started physically with tackles flying in with Paul Scholes extremely fortunate not to see red. Then in the 55th minute, on his 100th appearance for the club, Sylvain Wiltord wrote his name into Arsenal folklore scoring the goal that would seal victory and, more importantly, the title.
The match that sticks in my memory the most has to be the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’. The game was characterised by the aggression of the two teams with 31 fouls in total. Then in the 80th minute, Van Nistelrooy jumped up onto Vieira’s back while challenging for the ball. In retaliation Vieira kicked out at Van Nistelrooy, but not making contact. He was sent off for a second bookable offence and the tone was set as the Arsenal anger boiled over. In the last minute United were awarded a penalty. Van Nistelrooy stepped up and smashed it into the bar. This is where the passion of the players really showed and this has to be one of my favourite moments in football. Keown jumped up and down in front of Dutch striker heckling him for his miss. But it didn’t end here. At the final whistle, Van Nistelrooy was confronted by Toure, Lauren, Cole, Parlour and Keown and a scuffle ensued between the two sides. As a result disciplinary action was taken which saw Keown, Parlour, Lauren and Cole banned and given fines totalling £275,000. Two Manchester United players were also fined. Still, this didn’t perturb Arsenal as they went on to win the league unbeaten. It is also important to remember that this missed penalty meant we held on to a draw and, more importantly, another step on the way to 49 games unbeaten.
In 2004 came the infamous ‘Battle of the Buffet’. Tensions boiled over at the end of another tense match which saw Manchester United prevail as 2-0 winners, ending Arsenal’s 49 match unbeaten run. Arsenal had lost more than just a match; their pride in their unbeaten run had come to an end at 49. The match was a fiery encounter in which Ferdinand and Van Nistelrooy were lucky not to be sent off. United took the lead through a controversial penalty converted by Van Nistelrooy before Rooney sealed the victory in the last minute. Revenge was sweet for Van Nistelrooy who missed a penalty in the previous fixture between the sides before being heckled by Keown. Sol Campbell refused to shake Wayne Rooney’s hand at the final whistle, believing that he had dived to win the penalty. Tempers boiled over after the final whistle and it is alleged that pizza was thrown at Ferguson by an unnamed Arsenal player who may or may not be called Cesc.
In the return fixture later that season, Keane was seen confronting Vieira in the tunnel. Before the match Vieira shoved Gary Neville, having confronted the right-back about some of his challenges in the aforementioned fixture. This match also saw tempers flare as Mikaël Silvestre (yes it could never work) was sent off, however United prevailed to win 4-2. Whether it is flying tackles, ‘War of Words’ or just pizza, this fixture never fails to amaze. However, looking through the Arsenal squad now, I struggle to find the Keowns or Vieiras that made this fixture so exciting. I fear that, maybe apart from the rivalry of the managers, this match may lack the spice that we have seen down the years.
Just sit back for a moment and imagine the scene. It’s the 90th minute and Manchester United have been awarded a penalty. The score is 1-1 and up steps Wayne Rooney to win it. Szczesny bounces up and down on the line as usual, swaying from side to side, seemingly desperate for the toilet. Rooney hits it and the ball clatters the bar. Now what would happen next? Could you imagine Andre Santos jumping up and down in front of Rooney heckling him for his miss? Would a 20-man scuffle ensue, led by Aaron Ramsey? Will there be another ‘Battle of the Buffet’ as pizza is thrown by Carl Jenkinson at Sir Alex Ferguson? I doubt it.
But Arsenal players can hardly have any more incentive to go Old Trafford and take the game to Manchester United. ‘You know who’ has just headed to Manchester on his pursuit of glory and cash. What better reason could Arsenal players have than to prove him wrong and laud it over him? We need to go out there and show some of the spirit that makes this fixture so great. We can’t send a team out of lambs ready to be slaughtered like last year and become the laughing stock of the league. As Theo said after Reading come back ‘that is not Arsenal’ and that will not be acceptable.