Arsenal v Manchester United: English Football's Lost Rivalry

From Bould to Bruce, Parlour to Pallister and Keown to Keane, Arsenal-Manchester United games were once so twisted that the authorities had a moan. Now there's more chance of conflict within the prawn sandwich brigade.
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From Bould to Bruce, Parlour to Pallister and Keown to Keane, Arsenal-Manchester United games were once so twisted that the authorities had a moan. Now there's more chance of conflict within the prawn sandwich brigade.

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Arsenal meet Manchester United for the first time since the 8-2 demolition they suffered at Old Trafford, but both sides lack the fight to re-intensify a once bitter contest.

It is testament to Nigel Winterburn’s sneering veneer that Sir Alex Ferguson once cited him as the antagonist who instigated the Arsenal-Man United rivalry. Having goaded Brian McClair after a missed penalty at Highbury’s North Bank in 1988, he was reacquainted with ‘Choccy’ a little over 18 months later.

When Winterburn executed an overzealous challenge on Denis Irwin, it offered McClair the opportunity to gain revenge. And in the Scot’s case, a vengeful dish is best served by repeatedly kicking your nemesis in the ribs. It sparked a 21-man brawl on the Old Trafford turf, as punches were thrown from both sets of players and the game was held up for 10 minutes.

In contrast to this century’s tabloid darlings – the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ and the ‘Battle of the Buffet’ respectively – it was the bloodbath to their bubble bath. Back then, both sides were docked points and no one dared to fan the flames of a tedious tackling debate since teams were populated by hard b******s. Unlike now.

Arsenal’s lack of success isn’t as pivotal in the dwindling rivalry between themselves and United as some suggest either. The turning point wasn’t even when Patrick Vieira signed off his Highbury career with an FA Cup-winning penalty against Ferguson’s side at a drenched Millennium Stadium in 2005. Arguably, it came three months previously, just beyond the old ground’s marble halls.

Prior to an evening league match, Roy Keane was apoplectic with Vieira for ‘picking on Gary Neville’. Greame Poll, mediating sensibly for once, was informed by the Irishman to ‘Tell him (Vieira) to shut his ******g mouth.’ The Gunners’s French captain meanwhile appeared sheepish and alarmed. Dennis Bergkamp asked ‘Are you okay?’ and so fragile was Vieira that Pascal Cygan was compelled to offer an ‘Allez’. It was gripping television; a rivalry so intense that the Metropolitan Police and government ministers complained.

Essentially, Keane had won a football match before it had started, even if Vieira ironically opened the scoring that evening. United prevailed 4-2 to inflict on Arsenal their first league defeat for 21 months and for many reds, it is one of the most satisfying away wins under Ferguson's era.

Keane’s cutting critique of his opponent before the shrill of the first whistle was decisive since Vieira seemed to lose the stomach for conflict, something which he had always relished – especially against United. He committed an outrageous dive in the first-half in a bid to get the irascible Wayne Rooney sent off, even receiving treatment from a perplexed Gary Lewin. He was the victim – but only of a cameraman’s eye for contrast.

And since that penultimate Highbury fixture between two of England’s greats, the bellowing flames are but a flicker. Keane left United acrimoniously four months after Vieira inked a deal to join Juventus, and both teams have since lacked brawn to complement the brain.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – who did more in half the time against Swansea City than Thierry Henry – would represent a more auspicious selection.

Seeking, let alone sprinkling, spice into the recipe for a feverish concoction between these two is now an unenviable task. Ferguson and Wenger, a little over three years ago, were clad in tuxedos and joking like Morecambe and Wise at a League Managers Association dinner when once the Frenchman offered his counterpart to a fight. And after United’s 8-2 annihilation of Arsenal in August, the Scot launched a sincere defence of his (one-time?) adversary, appearing penitent that his team had humiliated him in such a chastening manner.

Finally Wenger has the chance for semi-redemption on Sunday, complete with familiar failing circumstances recurring. Arsenal weren’t particularly terrible in their three recent league defeats on the road, but the paper which masked those pesky cracks has finally peeled off and, most inconveniently for Wenger, in January. Expenditure in N5 is as likely as Kieran Gibbs seeing out 90 minutes however.

United, often hamstrung by Tinkerbell’s Terrible Tombola, have to be ruthless in their intentions at the Emirates. Their hosts are as in need of full-backs as the visitors are midfielders, which means that Antonio Valencia and Nani must start, irrespective of the latter’s erratic form. Yet Nani will probably be the fall guy at the expense of Ji-Sung Park, workhorse extraordinaire and scourge of Arsenal.

Just because he has scored 19 per cent of his goals against them and is purportedly a ‘big game player’ doesn’t compensate for his limitations as an attacker. Nani is one of the Red Devils’ best players and his misguided absence from the starting XI at Anfield at the expense of the South Korean effectively withdrew a spring from United’s attacking bow.

Somewhat understandably, Ferguson will vindicate Park’s selection due to Patrice Evra making most wingers he faces these days look like Jairzinho. Rather than Theo ‘woeful’ Walcott or the superfluous Andrey Arshavin, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – who did more in half the time against Swansea City than Thierry Henry – would represent a more auspicious selection for Wenger to trouble Evra. His cameos are deserving of a Premier League chance given his underwhelming peers.

Michael Carrick is a certain starter in midfield for United, but should be paired alongside Phil Jones in order to offer United discipline and security against Arsenal’s own middle men. Aaron Ramsey and Alex Song were a troublesome duo for Anderson and Carrick last May, let alone geriatrics such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. The latter twos selection against quality midfields in recent years lead some to question the number of starters the Reds had on the pitch.

Although Scholes’ presence would actually add spice and revive what was once a cacophonous conflict but has since downgraded to diplomatic decorum. Beauty will arrive for the ball, but Beast may not.

FootballFix

@samuelluckhurst

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