Arsenal and Manchester United are known for their great battles over the past decade in the English Premier League. The fans, the players, and even the managers (!) were famous for their duels both on and off the pitch. The two clubs were jostling for league honours for a number of years on end, but the jostling seen at Old Trafford in September 2003 hadn’t been witnessed before. And it didn’t do justice to the great rivalry the two teams share.
Arsenal had literally brought about their own downfall towards the end of the previous season, when they blew a significant lead at the top of the table to eventually lose the title to Manchester United. Wenger, the Arsenal Manager, was left red-faced, after claiming rather cockily earlier in the season that his side could go through the whole campaign unbeaten. So there was an uneasy feeling when the two teams lined up at Old Trafford in the early part of the 2003-04 season, and Arsenal’s frustration at losing out to their biggest rivals became more and more evident as the game wore on.
Vieira Sees Red…
The match was one of those cagey affairs, with neither team creating many clear-cut chances, and most of the play was conducted in midfield, where tackles were flying in left, right, and center. United were slightly better on the day, however, and looked the more dangerous of the two teams on show. However, the erstwhile dull game turned interesting and dramatic ten minutes before the final whistle.
Gunners skipper Patrick Vieira, who was on a yellow card, was fouled by Van Nistelrooy, who climbed all over him. The Frenchman was livid with the United striker, and lashed out with a kick while on the floor. His foot was far from Ruud, but the striker reacted, probably naturally, and stepped back sharply. Referee Steve Bennett duly obliged and showed Vieira his second yellow card, which ended his match.
The incensed Arsenal captain failed to leave the field quickly, and had to be separated from Nistelrooy, who according to Vieira had play-acted in order to get him sent off. It was Vieira’s 9th and Arsenal’s 52nd red card in Wenger’s reign, and again brought Arsenal players’ volatile tempers to light. However, as the old saying (Is it really a saying?!) goes, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”.
Towards the end of the match, around the 90-minute mark, United crossed a ball into the penalty area, and Martin Keown was adjudged to have brought down substitute Diego Forlan for a relatively innocuous challenge. Arsenal players were livid, especially after they had fought admirably the entire game to keep the scores as they were. However, Ruud Van Nistelrooy stepped up, smashed his shot against the crossbar, and missed his third consecutive penalty.
The final whistle sounded soon after, but the Gunners weren’t finished. A crowd formed around Nistelrooy, which included the otherwise unemotional Keown, Ray Parlour, Lauren and Ashley Cole, and they shoved him and gloated over his penalty miss. Lauren and Martin Keown in particular, were seen to have actually physically struck the Dutchman, in what were perhaps the ugliest scenes in the Premiership in a long time. Van Nistelrooy did his best to restrain himself, and was whisked away inside the tunnel, while Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Ronaldo faced up to the Gunners. Edu and Gilberto played peacemakers, though, and the sides returned to their dressing rooms thereafter.
Arsene Wenger and Arsenal issued a public apology the next day, but the Gunners were punished severely for the offence. The club was handed out a record ₤175,000 for failing to control its players, whereas Lauren, Keown, Parlour and Patrick Vieira were individually fined and received suspensions as well.
It was probably the breaking point of the rivalry between the two sides, who had been at each other for a number of years. The Arsenal players and Arsene Wenger famously called Nistelrooy a “cheat”, and still maintain that view till this day. It was a shameful incident in Arsenal’s history, but it also signified the steely determination and unity they had built over the years, even if it was displayed in an altogether horrible manner. The stalemate spurred the Gunners on to bigger things, as they utilized their lucky escape to go the entire season unbeaten and win the league, something Wenger had predicted for the previous season.
United fans were incensed after the game, whereas Arsenal fans were basking in the joy of pulling off an unlikely draw. However, till this day, a certain section of Gunners fans look back to that day and enjoy the ugly images of their players bullying and jostling with Van Nistelrooy. They look back at the incident with a slightly cynical outlook, whereas United fans turn back to that match whenever they need a reminder as to why they hate Arsenal.
The result that day at Manchester is seen by many as the game which transformed Arsenal’s side into the “Invincibles”, but United would have the last laugh, as the Gunners’ invincibility was to crumble at the very place it was born, Old Trafford. United beat Arsenal 2-0 the following season in the infamous “Pizzagate” fixture, and opened the scoring with a penalty.
Any guesses who scored?