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The Magnificent Seven: Arsenal versus Manchester United

Arsenal’s trip to Old Trafford on Monday evening will be the latest installment of a rivalry which has been fierce and often excessive, but always entertaining.

IN THIS WEEK’S column, Niall Kelly runs the rule over seven of the best clashes between the two rivals since 1979 …

1. Arsenal 3-2 Manchester United (FA Cup Final, 12 May 1979)

Although lacking in all-out aggression and 22 man brawls, the 1979 FA Cup Final was no less passionate an encounter than the less-disciplined reprises which have since come to dominate the modern history of the fixture.

After lacklustre league campaigns which had seen the Gunners finish seventh and United ninth, both sides had much to play for.

Arsenal shouldered an additional burden having been beaten in the previous year’s final at the hands of Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. With first-half goals from Brian Talbot and Frank Stapleton providing a two-goal cushion, it appeared that redemption would be theirs. Until the 86th minute.

When Scottish centre-half Gordon McQueen pulled one back for United with four minutes on the clock, commentator Brian Moore dared to ask “who knows what might be produced in those four minutes?”

Yet not even he could have predicted what was about to unfold just two minutes later, as Sammy McIlroy went on a seemingly interminable run, evading the lunging David O’Leary and slipping the ball neatly through substitute Steve Walford’s legs before rolling it ever so slowly into the corner of Pat Jennings’ net. United, it seemed, had stolen a replay.

With the jubilant United fans still bouncing on the terraces, the game was turned on its head again 22 seconds later. Liam Brady led the Arsenal march downfield, feeding Graham Rix on the left-wing who in turn picked out Alan Sunderland at the back post, sliding in to secure the cup that Arsenal had almost conspired to lose and thus bringing to an end the most dramatic five minutes in FA Cup Final history.


2. Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal (First Division, 20 Oct 1990)

Arsenal and Man United’s past is littered with so many events that have been dubbed “The Battle of Old Trafford” that there now appears to be an accepted convention among football fans and journos for distinguishing one from the rest.

This unwritten rule states that the 21-man brawl of October 1990 is the grandaddy to which all subsequent scuffles should be unfavourably compared.

While such an all-encompassing melee was relatively novel at the time, the free-for-all sparked by Nigel Winterburn’s second-half tackle on Denis Irwin did have roots which extended back beyond the match itself.

Just ask David Rocastle, who had taken the law into his own hands in a 1987 league match at Old Trafford, adjudging a swift dig to be suitable retribution for the persistent manhandling which he suffered at the hands of Norman Whiteside.

Or Brian McClair, who had to endure goading of Keown-esque proportions at the hands of Nigel Winterburn following a skied last-minute penalty in the 87/88 FA Cup.

Fittingly, Winterburn and McClair would serve as the protagonists in 1990, the Scot taking the opportunity to show some “sympathy” of his own, delivering a series of kicks to the Arsenal defender’s midriff and back as he lay prostrate on the ground.

With the opening act complete, it didn’t take long for the bystanders to become willing participants in the unfolding drama. Within seconds, all but David Seaman were trading blows, the Arsenal keeper content to survey the carnage from the safety of his own penalty area.

The game itself was relegated to a sideshow, with Anders Limpar’s winner proving to be the least-interesting post-match talking point. United were subsequently docked a point by the FA, with Arsenal docked two, though not even this penalty could stop them from going on to win the league at a canter with seven points to spare.


3. Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal (aet, FA Cup Semi-Final Replay, 14 April 1999)

The 1999 FA Cup Semi Final tie bore all the hallmarks of two teams who knew exactly what they stood to lose, with Arsenal hoping that they could maintain their slim advantage in the Premier League to bring home a league and cup double while United had one eye on their upcoming trip to the Stadio delle Alpi, the dream of an unprecedented treble still very much alive.

An insipid 0-0 draw, played out by two teams well-aware of what was at stake, surprised no-one.

If the initial game was unremarkable, the replay was unforgettable, a match which had all the ingredients of a classic. Two superb strikes by Beckham and by Bergkamp either side of half-time.

A marginal offside decision correctly awarded after Nicholas Anelka had rounded Peter Schmeichel to steer the ball home. A Roy Keane sending-off for a second bookable offence.

A last-minute penalty, a chance for Dennis Bergkamp to put an end to all the talk of a United treble. Saved.

As is so often the case, it would take a moment of magic to separate the two teams. Capitalising on a misplaced Viera pass that has since become immortalized in the terrace songbook, Ryan Giggs collected the ball inside his own half before going on a career-defining mazy run, bobbing and weaving his way past the remnants of the Arsenal midfield and defence before drilling the ball into the roof of David Seaman’s net from a tight angle.

Having scored one of the great FA Cup goals, Giggs’ performance was marred only by his decision to remove his shirt as he celebrated, the image of his incomprehensibly hairy chest thus burned into the retinas of children everywhere who had pleaded with their parents to let them stay up to witness the game’s climax.


4. Manchester United 6-1 Arsenal (FA Premier League, 25 Feb 2001)

In the Premier League era, six-goal tallies have traditionally been reserved for games against the league’s minnows rather than for clashes between the “Big Four”.

For15  minutes, there was no indication that Arsenal’s trip to Old Trafford in February 2001 would be anything but standard fare between two evenly-matched teams, Thierry Henry’s equalizer cancelling out Dwight Yorke’s second-minute opener.

That was where the parity ended and the party started for United, Dwight Yorke sealing his hat-trick inside the first 22 minutes with Roy Keane and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer chipping in for good measure. 5-1 at half-time, the game was over as a contest, though it was not until Teddy Sheringham popped up with his 14th league goal of the season in the 90th minute that United’s rout was complete.

United’s achievement is even more remarkable considering that they had experienced something of a goal drought, managing only four goals in the six games prior to this.

Jolted out of their temporary slump, Alex Ferguson’s men vindicated those bookmakers who had already started to pay out on their league success, romping to a third successive league victory with ten points to spare over Arsenal at the season’s end.


5. Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal (FA Premier League, 08 May 2002)

If the fixture gods are not kind enough to let a team win the league title in front of their home fans, the next best place to do so is undoubtedly at the home of their dearest rivals.

Twice in the space of three years, Arsenal had this fortune bestowed upon them, their coronation at White Hart Lane in 2004 following on from a similar feat at Old Trafford in May 2002.

Having beaten neighbours Chelsea 2-0 at the Millennium Stadium just four days earlier, Arsene Wenger brought his team to Old Trafford with one half of the domestic double already in the trophy cabinet, needing only a single point from their two remaining Premier League matches to complete the collection.

The travelling Arsenal support would have reason to be wary, however, not only of the possibility of a cup hangover but also of the efficacy of a side weakened by the absence of Tony Adams, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires.

In a game dominated in large swathes by the visitors, Sylvain Wiltord found himself in the right place at the right time, steering home a 55th minute rebound after United keeper Fabian Barthez could only parry Freddie Ljungberg’s close-range effort back into the French striker’s path.

The travelling Arsenal support were sure to savour their victory. As the final whistle sounded, they proudly unfurled a banner which proclaimed their corner of Old Trafford the “Champions Section”.


6. Manchester United 0-0 Arsenal (FA Premier League, 21 Sept 2003)

While few scoreless draws are considered to be classic games of football, some go down in history for other, less savoury reasons. The 2003 reprise of the “Battle of Old Trafford” is one such game.

The ill-tempered game seemed likely to peter out as a damp squib when, with just over 10 minutes left on the clock, it kicked into life. Literally.

Taking exception to Ruud van Nistelrooy’s apparent attempt to mount him as the pair rose to contest a header, Arsenal captain Patrick Viera swung a boot toward the Dutchman as he picked himself up off the deck.

Though Viera’s boot made no contact, van Nistelrooy instinctively jumped back out of the way, an act of self-preservation seen by the Arsenal players as play-acting in an attempt to get their teammate sent off.

Whatever van Nistelrooy’s intention, the end product was the same and the French international walked for a second-bookable offence.

When the initial skirmishes had been settled and Viera ejected, it appeared that the incident would have no impact on a game destined to finish 0-0.

Referee Steve Bennett had other ideas, however, and in the 90th minute, awarded United a penalty following a fairly innocuous-looking challenge by Martin Keown on Diego Forlan.

Van Nistelrooy stepped up and rattled the crossbar from the resulting spot kick. As Bennett blew the final whistle seconds later, the Arsenal players took the opportunity to thank the United striker for salvaging a point on their behalf, Martin Keown’s simian aggression unforgettably leading the charge.


7. Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal (FA Premier League, 24 Oct 2004)

If the previous season’s “Battle of Old Trafford” had somewhat tediously been dubbed “Monkeygate”, Arsenal’s return to the scene of the crime 12 months later would be adorned with the equally trite moniker of “Buffetgate”.

Coming into the game with eight wins and a draw from their opening nine games of the campaign, Arsenal’s “Invincibles” seemed intent on extending their historic achievement of the previous season, needing a win at Old Trafford to reach the 50-game milestone. As the game remained goalless approaching the 72nd minute, such a prospect appeared to be within Arsenal’s grasp.

However, as Wayne Rooney ghosted into the box, he hit the deck with Arsenal centre-half Sol Campbell in close attendance. Though the replays showed contact to be minimal, if there indeed was any at all, from referee Mike Riley’s vantage point the challenge merited a penalty.

Exorcising the ghosts of the previous year, this time around, Van Nistelrooy made no mistake from the spot.

As Arsenal pushed forward in an attempt to preserve their invincibility, United capitalised to ensure all three points, provider turning goalscorer as birthday boy Rooney knocked in his team’s second from close range in the ninetieth minute.

As per usual for the fixture, tempers flared over after the final whistle, with Alex Ferguson’s suit bearing the evidence of what appeared to be a food-fight between the two teams in the tunnel after the game.

In his autobiography, then-Arsenal defender Ashley Cole would later reveal that Ferguson had been hit in his “famous puce face” by a slice of pizza. Though Cole’s identification of the culprit as neither English nor French exonerated only half of that day’s squad, the finger of blame appears to have been pointed at a certain 17-year-old Spanish substitute whose pizza-tossing days are now a distant memory – Cesc Fabregas.

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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