The greatest rivalry of the Premier League era


From 1997 till 2005, Arsenal-United matches were ‘the’ match-ups of the year. By far the top two sides in the country for most of that era, they competed for most of the available silverware and while Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds or Chelsea would occasionally throw a spanner into the works. From the undoubted ‘big two’, it evolved into the notorious ‘big four’ – which has recently been extended into an unmitigated ‘big six’.
The fact that the popularity of football in Pakistan was on the up – owing mostly to an increase in cable connections and augmentation of Premier League coverage – in the abovementioned epoch, football devotees were primarily divided into two major categories: Arsenal fans and Man United fans. And even though Arsenal’s recent decline has meant that there is not as much at stake when the two sides lock horns, as it was around 10 years ago, the respective fan bases in our country ensure that it still is the most keenly followed EPL game.
Ever since Arsene Wenger took on the reins at the North London club in 1996, the club rivalry with United and scores of individual rivalries shot up! Wenger and Ferguson might bear resemblance to longtime chums nowadays, but there was a time when they couldn’t bear the talk of the other and loathed each other from the locus of their heart – much to the intrigue of football followers. Then there used be a plethora of player enmities; starting off with the Ian Wright–Peter Schmeichel rivalry, where the legendary Arsenal striker customarily failed to get the better of the big Dane, and the Englishman’s frustration eventually culminated in a well-documented two-footed lunge on the former United goalkeeper in one of their last encounters. Martin Keown’s leap over Ruud Van Nistelrooy after the Dutch striker missed the spot kick at Old Trafford in September 2003 – the start of the season in which Arsenal rewrote history and finished the season unbeaten as the ‘Invincibles’ – is another moment etched in the history books of this legendary duel. However, arguably the most notable player rivalry, not only in this fixture but in the history of the Premier League was contested between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira – skippers of their sides for so long and the midfield engines and heartbeats of their respective clubs. Who can forget the tunnel clash before the game kicked off at Highbury in February 2005, when Keane famously shouted out to Vieira, “I’ll see you out there”. The Frenchman scored in the game, but United won the game 4-2 in what was one of the most entertaining and feisty matches in the history of the two clubs’ matchups.
Being the top dogs in the country, and great rivals to boot, also mean that the two English giants have played out some of the biggest matches in the history of the English game. Ever since Wenger’s side did the double in 1998 to slash United’s dominance in the 90s the two teams have served up some of the tastiest encounters. From ‘butter fingered Barthez’ in 2001; Arsenal rubbing it in, by lifting the league trophy after a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in 2002; the ‘pizza gate’ episode in 2004 after United ended Arsenal’s 49 match unbeaten run in controversial circumstances; the two sides outdoing each other in the semi final and final of the F.A Cup in 2004 (United) and 2005 (Arsenal) respectively; Arsenal doing the double over United thanks to Adebayor’s late winner at Old Trafford and Henry’s famous last gasp headed winner – one of probably one and a half headers that he scored in his entire Arsenal career – in 2006-07; United’s Cristiano Ronaldo inspired win over Arsenal in the Champions League in 2009 – still referred to as “Black Tuesday” by Arsenal fans and recently the 8-2 thrashing at Old Trafford, the revenge for which Arsenal would love to serve up today.
Tonight’s game at the Emirates between the two great rivals sees possibly two of the most mundane lineups that the fixture has seen over the past 15 years or so. There are no two ways about the fact that the current United side is no way near the one of the best sides under Alex Ferguson, and even though Arsenal are showing a quasi resurgence, this is still far from being Wenger’s best group as well. However, with Arsenal chasing Chelsea for the coveted fourth spot and United trying to fend off the challenge of their noisy neighbours for the EPL title, there is still a lot resting on the game. And of course with Thierry Henry and Paul Scholes returning, it would just be like the good old days…