Cherish the Arsenal and United rivalry

2014-11-22 00:00

THE Manchester United-Arsenal rivalry is a strange one. It is technically not a derby — geography tells us that — but to many fans of both clubs it is a fixture that means as much as any.

The Ferguson-Wenger rivalry of the late 1990s and early 2000s made this the most attractive fixture on the league calendar. During this time, both clubs were in full flight and season after season they would be contesting for the title with little else coming in the way of resistance from other clubs.

Names like Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Schmeichel and Neville were pitted against the likes of Overmars, Bergkamp, Keown, Seaman and Henry. It was the best that England had to offer thrown into one fixture, twice a year, and the end results were explosive.

Of all the United-Arsenal rivalries — Keane versus Vieira was the fiercest. The two central midfielders, equally talented yet so vastly different, clashed more times than either would like to admit. Who could forget the great Highbury tunnel incident of 2005? Keane had a full go at Vieira in the tunnel before the match after the Frenchman had supposedly launched an attack on Gary Neville. The cameras caught the end of the row, and Vieira emerged looking like he had just witnessed an exorcism. The refs had to calm down Keane, who looked like his temples were about to burst, before the sides could take to the pitch. This all before a ball was kicked.

That was probably the greatest player rivalry that has ever emerged from the Premier League, and anybody who hasn’t watched the documentary Keane and Vieira — The Best of Enemies should do themselves a favour.

The 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay between the clubs is another that stands out. At 1-1, Bergkamp sees a penalty saved by Schmeichel before a misplaced Vieira pass sees Giggs dribble the ball over 50 metres to smash into the roof of the net and send United delirious. “It felt like the end of the world,” Vieira said in the documentary — words ­indicative of the intensity of the rivalry between the “Invincibles” and the “Treble Winners”.

The story would move into the early 2000s. The Gunners won the league and the double at Old Trafford in 2002 with a 1-0 win in what was one of the finest moments in the club’s history. Nothing would have hurt United more than watching their biggest rivals celebrating league glory on their own turf.

The scorching nature of the rivalry reached new heights in 2003 in what would be dubbed the “Battle of Old Trafford”. Vieira was sent off before a Van Nistelrooy missed penalty in the last minute saw United miss out on the chance to claim victory. The brawl that followed saw a visibly shaken Van Nistelrooy hounded by jeering Gunners. To make matters worse, that would be the season that Wenger’s men would go on to win the title without losing a game — the Invincibles were born.

When the Abramovich era began at Chelsea the fixture began to lose its status as the tastiest of the season. All of a sudden there was a third side capable of winning trophies, and both United and Arsenal took a back seat as ­Mourinho waved his wand.

Since then United-Arsenal has lost a bit of fire. They meet tonight at the Emirates — not Highbury — without any Keane or Vieira-like figures in their dressing rooms. Both sides are struggling, to the point where they are ­already written off in terms of challenging for league honours — not ­something that either club are accustomed to this far before Christmas.

But for supporters, the passion remains. And I’m sure it does for Wenger too. He has experienced the highs and lows of this fixture, and he will still eye this one as slightly more significant than the others.

Predictions are dangerous, but with United going into the match barely able to field a back four and with David de Gea out injured, the Gunners are surely favourites to triumph. But regardless of who wins, let’s hope for goals, aggression and a glimpse of times past.

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