The Best Matches Ever Part 6
First things first, apologies for the lack of match report for the Boro game. I was rushed off my feet at work on Monday and had an insufficient lunch break to produce a report and arrived home late last night to find my internet connection down. There seems little point now in recounting it as I think everybody has pored over it sufficiently. Suffice to say it was a poor display, only Rosicky and Gallas really emerged with any credit and we deserved to lose. It was probably an away match too far deprived of quality players, but we still should have had the resources to defeat Boro. Credit to the home side though, they deserved their victory. On the positive side, United recently lost at an equally forlorn Bolton side shorn of Rooney and Ronaldo, Chelsea suffered with the early season absences of Drogba and Terry and Liverpool turned in a similar performance at Reading. So it's worth keeping that in mind. My big disappointment was also that, having foregone another night's sleep on Saturday to make another long and arduous journey, so few of the players came over to acknowedge the away support. Bendtner, Theo, Rosicky and Gallas did, wheareas notably poorer performers Toure, Gilberto, Clichy and Eboue did not.
Anyway, having tasted an unwelcome slice of reality this weekend, where better to continue to raid the vaults of history (Chelsea fans might need to look that word up) and let the soothing balm of nostalgia apply its healing touch? Having already recounted the first in a series of Wenger led North London derby wins, it follows that a match up between Arsenal and United would worm its way into my recollection. This is a match up that has many, many contenders, even when one discounts the pre requisite of no finals, no semi finals and no title clinchers. The 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March 98 was considered, but I felt that sailed too close to the wind in terms of a title clincher. The 3-1 win at Highbury when Barthez's buffoonery delighted all in Goonerdom was also a close call. But as with the North London derby, I thought I'd recount Wenger's first victory over United.
Arsenal arrived at this fixture eight points behind a rampant United, with a raft of injuries to the likes of Bergkamp and Wright. The press had unanimously decided that the inevitable home defeat would count Arsenal out of the title race and see United march on to assume their starglehold of the Premiership crown. A rookie front line of Anelka and Wreh lined up for the Gunners', with the ever ageing David Platt entrusted with midfield responsibilities. But United were rocking on their heels early on, couched in casual complacency. Arsenal sprinted out of the blocks in the inimitable way that underdogs often do. After eight minutes, Nicolas Anelka snaked out to the left hand side. With one touch, he shuffled past Gary Neville and hit an instant shot, which caught Schmeichel off guard, beating the Dane at his front post to give Arsenal a shock lead. It was a glimpse into a tantalising future, at just 18 Anelka had truly arrived on the big stage. In retrospect, the goal is an ode to what could have been. Were it not for some solicitious brothers, Nicolas Anelka would not be playing out his prime in a relegation scrap with Bolton Wanderers.
United were shell shocked, unable to cope with the pace of Overmars and Anelka. The Gunners' capitalised on the visitors reflective coma on 25 minutes. Winterburn's corner was headed to the edge of the eighteen yard box by Gary Neville, the ball ran perfectly for the onrushing Patrick Vieira, who lobbed Schmeichel with a curling finish in front of the Clock End. Vieira's celebration was symptomatic of how Arsenal's luck would change, he strained knee ligaments as he slid on the turf in celebration and was subsequently replaced. Arsenal appeared unsure how best to use the advantage, whether to consolidate it or press for more. In the minutes it would take them to make the calculations, United would storm back. Firstly, a long ball from Neville- so instruumental in the goals his side had conceded- punted a long ball forward, which was flicked on by Andy Cole. Teddy Sheringham latched onto the flick on, turning an instant volley past Dave Seaman to half the defecit.
Minutes later, the sides were level courtesy of one of the more unpopular goals scored at Highbury. Neville would again play his part, hitting a precision cross into the Arsenal area which Sheringham would stoop to head home and cancel out the advantage. Of course, as an ex Tottenham player plying his trade for United, Teddy received a fair amount of stick from the Highbury masses and he returned it in kind. Swooping past the North Bank with his badge pressed tightly to his lips. Reportedly, several Arsenal fans complained about the celebration. If true, that it quite pathetic. If you've got 36,000 people chanting, 'Oooh Teddy, Teddy, you went to Man United and you're still a c***!', you cannot in the same breath complain when the target of your abuse exacts his revenge. Fair play I say, can anybody honestly say they would not have responded in the same manner?
Arsenal came out for the second half still in shock, looking unlikely to snatch a winner, the Gunners' were instead clinging on for the draw. Having not beaten United for two years prior to the match, the psychological burden looked as heavy as the legs. Seaman was forced to tip a Giggs shot onto the post and Cole went close, as Anelka and Wreh faded from the game. But with seven minutes remaining and United looking like they could settle on a point, Arsenal got their second wind and forced a corner in front of the North Bank, as Phil Neville headed Parlour's whipped cross out of play. Winterburn looked up and arced an outswinger to the penalty spot where David Platt wound back the clock to loop a header over Schmeichel and Phil Neville and into the roof of the North Bank net. Platt wheeled away in celebration, his receeding hair flailing behind him in the fierce November wind and probably the last great moment for one of England's finest ever players. The elation Highbury was enveloped in was as much to do with surprise as celebration, Arsenal had not looked anything like winning the game for nigh on an hour. United pressed on in the remaining minutes, Schmeichel providing an extra nuisance from corners. But Arsenal held firm and dragged themselves back into the title race, kicking and screaming. The pendulous nature of the contest would foreshadow the fortunes of a sporting rivalry which persists to this day. Heartbreaking semi finals, title celebrations, fortuitous Cup Final victories and last minute penalty misses by revered Dutch number 10s lurked on the horizon for these two gladiators. But on this day in November 1997, Arsenal set down a marker that they would challenge United's empiricism for years to come.LD.