Classic Encounters: v. Manchester United
There is plenty of material to plough when it comes to classic encounters between these sides. The two clubs have played out a hostile rivalry since the acrimonious transfer of Frank Stapleton, this rivalry having been amplified by the two current incumbent managers. Home games against United have oft been explosive, in fact, the iconographic poster for this match would usually be Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira butting heads like a pair of overly rambunctious rams back in August 1999. But drama and controversy have preceded and proceeded the pair too. Back in 1993, a thrilling 2-2 draw at Highbury, in which Lee Sharpe scored twice, saw an Alan Smith goal ruled out for no good reason in injury time after a piece of Merson Magic had levelled the scores. There was of course the infamous showdown between Schmeichel and Ian Wright in 1997, Wright launching an x rated challenge on the red nosed keeper following an alleged racist slur the previous November. Nicolas Anelka`s first goal for the club and a late David Platt winner removed the lubricious smirk from Teddy Sheringham`s features in November 1997. The following season the Gunners trounced United 3-0. Of course Ole Solskjaer`s appalling histrionics intensified the mutual dislike between the clubs when his play acting got Sol Campbell sent off in the death throes of the 2002-03 season. Of course Thierry Henry`s last minute header in January 2007 gave the Emirates Stadium its first iconoclastic moment.
However, the game I have picked was not infamous for controversy so much as it was for the comedy. In November 2001, Arsenal trailed United by five points in the Premiership table. With the Gunners having just been humbled at home, 4-2 by Charlton Athletic, the talk was of a United victory halting Arsenal`s title challenge for good with the home side still yet to visit Old Trafford and Anfield. (Both trips yielded very happy memories indeed!) Arsenal had beaten United 4-0 in the Worthington Cup some 6 days earlier, but this was to be a more intense and meaningful encounter. United, wearing gold kits, started the brighter, the home side looking wracked with nerves, and took the lead on 14 minutes. Beckham slipped a cute ball in behind Lauren, which Mikael Silvestre (whatever happened to him?) raced to the by-line to cut back to Paul Scholes, who lashed the ball past Stuart Taylor via a slight deflection off Matthew Upson. As half time arrived, the United fans to my left were relaxed, "1-0 in the real game" they mocked. But Arsene Wenger gave a Chruchillian half time team talk that he later affirmed to be the turning point in his side`s season.
Within three minutes of the restart, Wenger`s oratory skills were manifested gloriously on the field of play. Gary Neville foolishly gave the ball away to Robert Pires; Pires beautifully curved the ball into the direction of Ljungberg via Henry, and Ljungberg dinked a delicious lob over the top of Fabien Barthez. His expletive strewn celebration showed the Gunners were breathing fire and they applied the pressure to United, who tried in vain to stick out the draw. Kanu and substitute Sylvain Wiltord both went close, whilst Barthez brilliantly tipped Henry`s curling shot wide. With ten minutes left on the clock, Arsenal looked to have run out of ideas. After some uncharacteristic miscontrol from Henry, Beckham guided the ball safely back to his keeper Barthez. Barthez took his time before scuffing his left footed clearance straight into the path of Henry, leaving the Premiership`s most ruthless talisman through on goal. He made no mistake in the teeming rain to put the Gunners ahead. Ferguson had made all of his substitutions, most of them with the intention of preserving the draw.
United poured forwards, but Vieira dispossessed Scholes. Pires spun another arcing ball towards Henry which Barthez was out to calmly collect. However, with his confidence in tatters and the ball unctuous with precipitation, the ball squirmed from Fabien`s grip, allowing Henry to tuck the ball into the empty net. With the eyes of the world glaring gregariously at him, Barthez could do little but pull his shorts up with an anguished expression. The Highbury crowd were unrelenting in their mockery, "Barthez, man of the match, Barthez, Barthez man of the match." Followed by "give it to Barthez." Even the final whistle offered no respite for the beleaguered Frenchman; around 5,000 of us lined the streets outside Avenell Road, screaming "Barthez man of the match" at the dressing room windows, the pouring rain by now a scarcely noticeable sideshow for us Gooners. It was also the day we put a flag in the ground with regards to the title race and it was a flag that was not to be ousted.LD.