Date: 13th February 2008 at 11:35am
Written by:

There is simply no doubting that Manchester United v. Arsenal has been the colossal fixture in England over the last ten years plus. From the moment that Ferguson exploded with his “he`s come here from Japan?.” outburst (said the man from Scotland) and the second Ian Wright`s upturned studs propelled towards Peter Schmeichel, this has been the heavyweight clash. Of course, the animosity dates back a lot further than that. The battle of Old Trafford in 1990, Frank Stapleton`s ill advised parting shot when joining United from Highbury has seen a tempestuous relationship between the two clubs. But since the pair have assumed the mantle of the Premiership`s big two clubs, we`ve had racism rows, buffet battles, injury time penalty misses, petty squabbles. It seems the only thing this fixture hasn`t produced is a Ruud van Nistelrooy tackle which can be broadcast before the watershed. The two sides enjoy a fierce rivalry underpinned by a grudging respect, massively epitomised by the relationship between Keane and Vieira. Many suggest that the intensity has been diluted from this fixture since the departures of the aforementioned, but with Arsenal shooting themselves back into prominence, I`ve a feeling that the new generation will revive the bite into this fixture. Expect to see Fabregas and Anderson snarling at one another in the years to come, Clichy and Ronaldo toughing it out, Vidic and van Persie going eyeball to eyeball, William Gallas and Rio Ferdinand will have break dancing competitions in the centre circle whilst dissing each fly beatches. Possibly. So, in the build up to Saturday`s game, I will recount some of my favourite Arsenal triumphs at Old Trafford in recent years. Incidentally, if anyone can think of anything worth writing about Chelsea v Liverpool fixtures over the last five years? have a much more fertile imagination than I. Either that or you suffer from acute attention deficit disorder.

Where better to start than the last time Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford for an F.A. Cup fixture? 15th February, 2003. T`was the Fifth Round and 9,000 erstwhile Gooners made the trip to Manchester. On the journey up, I recall seeing the headline from the back of the Daily Star scream, “Wenger disrespects F.A. Cup!” as his plans to rest Thierry Henry were revealed to the press. Arsenal would start the game with Franny Jeffers and Sylvain Wiltord leading the line. Edu partnered Vieira in central midfield as Gilberto had returned late from a pointless, yet no doubt lucrative, international friendly. The previous May, the partnership between Edu and Vieira had been instrumental in Arsenal`s 1-0 success at the Old Trafford, while Henry was injured as Sylvain Wiltord scored the goal that shot the Gunners to the title. So this particular travelling Gooner was not quite so pessimistic. The game began in typically robust fashion, with Ferguson employing his strong arm tactics once again. His henchman van Nistelrooy flew in studs up on Martin Keown after just two minutes, catching him in the midriff with the ball grounded. The referee gave him a ticking off when a red card should have been the only recourse. Just three minutes later, the spiteful Dutchman left his studs in on Lauren, raking them down from shin to ankle. The referee again chose not to even caution him. The seeds of the battle that would ensue between Arsenal and van Nistelrooy had already been sewn nine months previously, when a punch to the abdomen of Ljungberg was seen by referee Paul Durkin, but ignored. His two latest indiscretions, followed seven months later by a pathetic dive to get Patrick Vieira sent off would invite trouble for van Nistelrooy. (Not from the authorities mind, they didn`t care).

If the referee was not interested in administering justice, karma would duly provide. After fifteen minutes, a flighted through ball from Scholes caught Keown out, Ryan Giggs ran through, rounded David Seaman but inexplicably ballooned the ball over the bar with the goal net winking nakedly at him. In the previous F.A. Cup encounter, Giggs` extra time masterpiece decided a titanic battle. Ironically, this action would have the diametrically opposite effect. The event gave birth to a couple of amusing ditties. United fans sing, “Giggs will tear you apart, again” to the tune of the Joy Division classic. I recall a small murmuring of, “Giggs, puts it over the bar, again,” at the match. But the enduring chant would be the Robin Hood ditty, aping another of United`s odes to their Welsh wing wizard, “Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, missed an open goal, Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs missed an open goal. How did he miss? Arsenal took the piss. Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs.”

From there on in, Arsenal assumed complete control. With the majesty of Edu and the raw power of Patrick Vieira easily overcoming the razor sharp studs of Scholes and Keane. Had the latter pair tried to use a little more brain they undoubtedly possess and a little less of the brutal brawn they employed, United may have had more success. On 37 minutes, Arsenal won a free kick on the edge of the area. Edu sent it towards Barthez`s left, but the outstretched neck forehead of Rio Ferdinand diverted the ball to his right and into the net. United looked deflated and never really recovered. At the beginning of the second half, the Gunners put a flowing passing move together from back to front, Sylvain Wiltord played a one two with Robert Pires on the edge of the United box, cut inside Wes Brown and despatched a low shot past Barthez for two nil. From there on, Arsenal were coasting, Edu and Vieira collecting a litter of free kicks as Scholes and Keane went into overdrive. After the match, Ferguson would accuse Arsenal of crowding the referee and falling to the floor too easily. This suggestion was laughed out of town by the even the usually fawning hacks of the British press. One journalist memorably exclaiming, “on planet Ferguson, Arsenal were cynical, nasty and overly prone to theatrics. In the real world, Arsenal were a picture of majesty and restraint in the face of United`s futile thuggery.” Henry entered the fray on 76 minutes, adding a few party pieces as United surrendered to the inevitable and Arsenal ran out comfortable victors.

The post match fireworks would go onto dominate the headlines, as David Beckham revealed a gashed forehead, a gift from a wayward Ferguson who had kicked a boot into Beckham`s direction. Reportedly, the conversation went as such (though this is merely conjecture),
Ferguson (to Beckham); Ashley Cole made a right c**t out of yoos.”
Beckham: “Well Arsene Wenger made an even bigger c**t out of you.”
I really, really hope that is true. What is certain is that it spelled curtains for Beckham at his boyhood club; he was sold to Real Madrid just three months later. With the extra tickets available, I was able to solicit one for somebody I lived with at University at the time. A German friend whose only prior football knowledge was the name ‘Manchester United` and David Beckham`s latest hairstyle. Her assessment of the game, “everything United did was so ugly, and everything Arsenal did was so beautiful.” Couldn`t have said it better myself.LD.