An epic rivalry - The top 10 Arsenal v Manchester United matches in the 21st century

As the two rivals go back to war at the Emirates on Sunday, we look at the most recent chapters of what usually tends to be an enthralling confrontation
By Chris Myson

Sunday is a crucial day in the Premier League title race - two vitally important clashes are taking place, the second of which being a familiar fixture when it comes to top-of-the-table rivalries.

Arsenal and Manchester United spent the end of the 20th century battling it out for silverware, with the Gunners emerging as the main challengers to Sir Alex Ferguson’s hunt for glory after the arrival of Arsene Wenger.

Some epic clashes took place in the early years of the Frenchman’s reign in north London before the rivalry developed even further after the turn of the millennium.

While the Gunners’ struggle to win trophies in recent years has ever so slightly reduced the significance of such meetings, it remains one of the most anticipated games on the Premier League calendar and, unlike many other fixtures between top sides, rarely fails to live up to expectations.

Ahead of the latest instalment at the Emirates, takes a look back and reflects on the best 10 games between the two sides since the 21st century began.

November 25 2001: Arsenal 3-1 Manchester United

One of the lowest points in the Manchester United career of eccentric goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, the Frenchman is still trying to forget this 2001 horror-show at Highbury.

The two sides were in the midst of their annual battle for the title and the match was an important one, despite it still being the first half of the season. Things were finely poised at 1-1 going into the last 10 minutes after Paul Scholes’ early opener had been cancelled out by Freddie Ljungberg’s strike.

Then, under no pressure, Barthez scuffed a routine clearance straight to the feet of Henry, allowing his compatriot to score. Then, as United committed men forward in search of an equaliser, a routine Arsenal long pass seemed to be gathered by the keeper before he bizarrely allowed the ball to squirm through his grasp and Henry raced on to tap in for the simplest of goals.

A bewildered Barthez then clutched his shorts in frustration as his team-mates looked on in disbelief – it was a remarkable late turnaround to complete a vitally important comeback.

May 08 2002: Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal

The two clubs met in the penultimate game of the season at Old Trafford with the Gunners overwhelming favourites to become champions and strip United of their league title.

The Red Devils were desperate to keep their own faint chances alive but more realistically just wanted to avoid seeing their fierce rivals crowned on their own turf.

But the in-form Gunners went into the game on an 11-game winning run and United had no answer to them, sinking to a 1-0 defeat after Sylvain Wiltord’s strike.

Arsenal won the title and their celebrations on the Old Trafford pitch made it a memorable night for their fans and a sick one for United, who ended up finishing third in the league and trophyless in one of their worst seasons of the Premier League era.

April 16 2003: Arsenal 2-2 Manchester United

Another game billed as a title decider, the two sides met with only a handful of matches left in the season.

Arsenal had led by as many as eight points in March, but by the time of this game it was on a knife-edge – United were three points clear but Arsenal had a game in hand and a better goal difference, so remained narrow favourites for league glory.

A classic encounter followed, with Ruud van Nistelrooy giving United an early lead with a stunning solo effort before the game was turned on its head thanks to a Thierry Henry double.

Ryan Giggs headed home an instant equaliser and then Sol Campbell was sent off for an elbow on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A frenetic and tense end to the game followed, with the eventual 2-2 draw meaning fans got all the drama they had hoped for and more but not the definitive result they had expected.

Ferguson’s celebrations with United fans after the match intriguingly suggested he thought the point would prove to be good enough, and he was right – Arsenal’s late collapse against Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers in the final weeks of the season handed United an advantage they didn’t relinquish in a classic title race.

September 21 2003: Manchester United 0-0 Arsenal

It may appear strange that a 0-0 draw appears on this list when 6-1 and 4-0 meetings narrowly miss the cut, but this clash in 2003-04 so nearly changed Premier League history.

In the early stages of the season, the two title rivals clashed at Old Trafford and a feisty tie was goalless until Martin Keown bundled Diego Forlan over in the box to give the hosts a stoppage-time penalty.

Arsenal had made an unbeaten start to the campaign, but that run looked set to be brought to an abrupt end when penalty-taking expert Ruud van Nistelrooy stepped up. Perhaps distracted by Jens Lehmann’s theatrics in goal, the Dutchman could only strike the crossbar.

A seemingly infuriated Keown led a surge of Arsenal team-mates in rushing to Van Nistelrooy to barge into the striker, taunting and celebrating his miss from the spot - a mass brawl spilled out as a result in a messy finale to the match.

The rest, as they say, is history and the Invincibles secured their place in Arsenal folklore. Clashes between these two sides remained particularly spikey in the immediate years after as an ugly post-match fallout followed the on-pitch scenes.

October 24 2004: Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal

Over a year later, Arsenal returned to Old Trafford with their unbeaten record still running at an incredible 49 Premier League games, with the half century now very much in sight.

With 20 minutes left, the game was goalless before new signing Wayne Rooney went down easily in the box under a challenge from Campbell. Referee Mike Riley controversially pointed to the spot allowing Van Nistelrooy a chance to redeem himself after the infamous scenes of last season.

This time the Dutchman found the back of the net and celebrated emotionally in front of the Stretford End, with a weight clearly lifted off his shoulders, before Rooney added a late second on the counter-attack.

Despite their protestations over the manner of the defeat, Wenger’s Invincibles had finally been stopped and it marked the symbolic end of their dominance in English football - they haven't won a league title since.

Feb 01 2005: Arsenal 2-4 Manchester United

A game which makes the list purely for entertainment value rather than the significance or importance of its outcome.

A thrilling clash at Highbury saw Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp give the Gunners a 2-1 lead going into half-time despite Ryan Giggs’ effort for the visitors.

In the second half, though, United sparked an impressive comeback. Cristiano Ronaldo enjoyed one of the best nights of his young career at the club by scoring twice in the space of two minutes but then Mikael Silvestre’s sending off threw the game back into the balance.

However, United sealed victory from the most unlikely of sources, a stunning lob from John O’Shea over Manuel Almunia giving them a memorable win.

Neither side went on to win the league - this was the start of Jose Mourinho’s successive title successes at Chelsea.

May 12 2005: Arsenal 0-0 Man Utd (Arsenal win 5-4 on pens)

Despite having lost both league encounters to United, it was Arsenal who had the last laugh in 2004-05 by winning the FA Cup on penalties against their rivals.

It was a surprisingly one-sided game, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side dominating and having the majority of clear-cut chances, but that counted for nothing and they were ruthlessly punished by the Gunners.

After no goals were scored in 120 minutes, Paul Scholes missed the decisive penalty in the shootout, allowing Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira to famously score the clincher and earn the right to lift the trophy.

It was the first time spot-kicks had decided who won the famous competition since 1912 and Arsenal’s 10th victory in the tournament, made all the sweeter by ensuring the Red Devils finished the campaign empty-handed.

January 21 2007: Arsenal 2-1 Manchester United

United appeared to be in control of this Premier League clash at the Emirates, after Wayne Rooney’s diving header had given them a second-half lead going into the last 10 minutes.

Rooney, his strike partner Henrik Larsson and Ronaldo were causing problems and the away defence looked unlikely to be breached. However, Wenger brought on Robin van Persie to join Emmanuel Adebayor and Henry in attack and the Dutchman levelled the scores with seven minutes to go.

Just when it looked like United would have to settle for a point, a stoppage-time cross from Emmanuel Eboue was dramatically headed home by Henry. The Emirates and the Frenchman went wild – Arsenal had turned the game on its head in style.

The result gave the hosts a league double over their rivals, but United did recover to win their first league title in four years and embark upon a fresh run of success.

May 05 2009: Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United

On a night still referred to as 'Black Tuesday' by some Arsenal fans, the Gunners' dreams of reaching the Champions League final were ruthlessly ended by United.

The semi-final first leg at Old Trafford had ended in a 1-0 victory for the Red Devils, so they held a narrow advantage in the tie and went in as favourites, but the hosts fancied their chances of turning things around and there was a frenzied atmosphere inside the Emirates before kick-off.

That mood only lasted eight minutes though, as Kieran Gibbs slipped to allow Park Ji-Sung an opener. After just 10 minutes it was 2-0 when Manuel Almunia could not keep out a forceful Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick from distance and the tie was effectively over after a remarkable start.

A brilliant counter-attacking goal, which was finished by Ronaldo, made it 3-0 on the night and 4-0 on aggregate. The only low point for United was Darren Fletcher being unjustly sent off for a challenge on Cesc Fabregas, which meant he would miss the final.

By the time Robin van Persie scored the late consolation from the resulting penalty, the stadium was already half empty. Ferguson's men would go on to be convincingly beaten in the final by Barcelona in Rome.

August 28 2011: Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal

A frustrated Arsenal side travelled to Old Trafford in the early stages of the 2011-12 season having just sold their two star players, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, to Barcelona and Manchester City respectively.

Injuries and suspensions did not help their chances either, but they went into the game hoping to turn around the dreadful mood at the club with a positive result and performance.

However, what followed was a torturous 90 minutes for their supporters. A lively first half had seen United go into the break 3-1 in front, while Arsenal had also seen David de Gea save a Robin van Persie penalty.

A disastrous second half followed. Wayne Rooney sealed a hat-trick, Ashley Young netted twice and the Red Devils had already scored six before Carl Jenkinson’s red card opened the floodgates further. United ruthlessly added another two goals in the closing stages to secure an astonishing 8-2 victory.

Only days remained in the transfer window, but this result – the club’s worst in 116 years - gave Wenger no option but to spend, which he eventually did, bringing in four new players and leading a revival of sorts after a terrible start to the season.

Arsenal want to secure some revenge on Sunday in what will hopefully be another classic encounter to add to this fixture's archives.

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