Remember Van Nistelrooy's Moment Of Truth
With Arsenal visiting Old Trafford tomorrow, I guess it's time to look back on some memorable events in the history of this clash. And because the rivalry has grown so quiet recently it's worth to remember what it was when the two sets of players really hated each other!
And what else is better to start with then the two most infamous games played at Old Trafford in the Wenger v Ferguson era? I refer, of course, to the 2003/04 and the 2004/05 seasons.
Many people (most of the media included) go misty-eyed when the 'Invincible' Arsenal are mentioned and it's quite forgotten now that they were one of the dirtiest, most petulant and cheating team ever to grace English football. Pires' dives and Vieira's bone-crunching fouls (and dives) are rarely mentioned, mostly the talk is about Henry's fantastic form throughout the season.
But as we all know, the whole unbeaten thing almost came crashing down at Old Trafford. It was a dire game, low on quality mostly because the wonderful football that Arsenal were supposed to be playing was nowhere to be seen: they set themselves up to defend and contain and frustrate us. Which they did quite well, I must admit, and it looked like they'd get the 0-0 draw they had come for.
With ten minutes to go though Patrick Vieira, kicking lumps out of everybody who came near him, got his long overdue second yellow for aiming a retaliatory kick at Ruud van Nistelrooy. United laid siege to the penalty box for the next ten minutes but to no avail - until right at the end Martin Keown pushed over Diego Forlan in the box and suddenly United had the chance to win the game.
We all know what happened: Van Nistelrooy hammered the penalty against the crossbar, Arsenal were let off the hook and their uncivilised, disgraceful players - Cole, Lauren, Parlour, led by the demented Keown - surrounded Van Nistelrooy, pushed him, shoved him and, in the case of Keown, even hit him.
To this day this incident barely gets a mention. Arsenal got a slap on the wrist after the incident - a little ban here and there, ridiculous fines but that's it, instead of a richly-deserved points deduction - and strangely, the next league meeting that took place at Old Trafford became much more famous.
An enduring image of that game is something like this: poor little brilliant Arsenal are kicked off the pitch by nasty diving Manchester United and that's why they lose their Greatest Ever Totally Fantastic Unbeaten Record.
The reality is different of course, vastly different. Arsenal had only one shot that hit the target - indeed, once again they came for a 0-0 draw. And while Reyes had a hard time against Gary Neville and while Van Nistelrooy's lunge on Ashley Cole was quite nasty, the Arsenal players were no saints themselves, once again led by Vieira and Lauren who did everything to intimidate the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo.
And to this day Arsenal are complaining about the penalty which marks the end of their 49-game run - but for many United fans that is one of the sweetest ever memories that football gave us. For Rooney did indeed dive, oh yes and gave Ruud a chance for redemption and revenge, revenge for what Arsenal's inhuman players did to him a year before.
And then... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWed6GIRxQI
Fantastic. The celebration said it all.
These days I respect Wenger for his faith in his young players and for the football they play. There's nothing of the old intensity of this rivalry now the likes of Cole, Lauren, Parlour, Keown and Vieira all left Arsenal. But back then it was different and, I must say, wonderful. These spats with Benitez don't even come close to the what went on between the two sets of players those days. Classic. And, for us, this Van Nistelrooy penalty must be the sweetest moment of the rivalry, for it encapsulated everything.