With both Manchester United and Arsenal locked in a renewed struggle for relevance, it’s easy to forget that this was the biggest fixture in the Premier League calendar between 1997 and 2004 as both sides dominated the top tier.
Let no-one tell you otherwise – they’ve always been rivals. And they hated each other.
Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson made a habit of publicly insulting the other and in Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane the clubs had two captains who were the physical embodiment of the bitter rivalry.
Here’s five explosive incidents as they go toe-to-toe again on Wednesday night.
1. 1999 FA Cup semi final, Villa Park
The FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park is one of the most iconic games in the history of the competition, famous for Ryan Giggs’ last minute wonder goal that sent United to Wembley. But there was far more to it than Giggs’ iconic goal. Viewers were treated to a David Beckham screamer, a Roy Keane red card and a last-minute penalty save from Peter Schmeichel in normal time before Giggs jinked his way past five Arsenal players and slammed the ball into David Seaman’s net.
United of course triumphed in the final against Newcastle, but victory over Arsenal was almost like winning the trophy itself. Following United’s treble, the rivalry became decidedly one-sided over the following two seasons as United finished a massive 18 points clear of Arsenal in 2000, before defeating their arch-rivals 6-1 in 2001 on their way to a third successive title.
2. Premier League, Old Trafford, September 2003
After United had somewhat unexpectedly won the title back from Arsenal in 2002/2003, the sides met in an early-season fixture at Old Trafford.
Just as the game appeared to be heading for a drab 0-0 draw, Martin Keown was deemed to have fouled Diego Forlan in the penalty area and United were handed a chance to snatch a last-gasp victory. Ruud Van Nistelrooy stepped up and crashed his penalty against the bar which prompted some of the ugliest scenes in recent memory.
Although Van Nistelrooy didn’t react, several other United players did which resulted in a mass brawl that saw six Arsenal players and two Manchester United players charged by the FA.
Arsenal would have the last laugh though, as Van Nistelrooy’s miss enabled them to go unbeaten that season; the first team in over a century to do so.
3. Battle of the Buffett / Pizzagate, October, 2004
The rivalry came to a head again in 2004/05, when Arsenal again traveled to Old Trafford for an Autumn encounter, boasting an unbeaten run of 49 games, a British football record.
The game was heavily marketed as “50/50” by Sky Sports in a cringe worthy attempt to sell a game that did not need to be sold, and it proved to be just as dramatic as the previous season. United were controversially awarded a penalty by Mike Riley for what was clearly a dive and Ruud Van Nistelrooy was given the chance to exorcise some of his demons from the previous season.
He made no mistake this time and that goal, along with a late Wayne Rooney strike, ended Arsenal’s unbeaten run one game shy of a perfect 50.
Again, Arsene Wenger’s troops confronted Van Nistelrooy in the tunnel.
Alex Ferguson intervened and famously had pizza thrown at him by Cesc Fabregas.
The game was later re-dubbed ‘The Battle of the Buffet,’ but neither club was charged as both mysteriously remained silent about the whole incident.
4. Tunnel-gate, Highbury, Keane v Vieira, February 1, 2005
The drama didn’t stop there and when sides met at Highbury in February the game was yet again overshadowed by an incident in the tunnel, this time before a ball had even been kicked. As both sets of players lined up in the tunnel, Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira attempted to intimidate Gary Neville.
Roy Keane took it upon himself to defend his right-back. Referee Graham Poll was forced to get between Keane and Vieira while Keane, repeatedly shouted “I’ll see you out there” at his old adversary.
The match that unfolded was an instant classic that United won 4-2 and John O’Shea’s glorious chip of Jens Lehmann to round off the scoring will never be forgotten, nor will his look of genuine shock at what he had just done. Arsenal had the last laugh by beating United in the FA Cup final on penalties, but the league went to Chelsea that season as the Blues emerged as the coming force in English football.
5. Arsene sees Red at Old Trafford, Aug 29, 2009
There were still some iconic moments in recent times and Arsene Wenger’s sending off at Old Trafford in 2009 for kicking a water bottle and the subsequent images of him standing, arms spread wide, among jeering United fans are some of the most enduring images of the rivalry.
They have been few and far between, however, and when Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, what was once the showpiece event of English football lost yet another edge.
Although in truth Ferguson and Wenger had become far more friendly towards one another in the intervening years anyway. However, if an emboldened Arsenal after their 4-2 win against Spurs on Sunday start to get cocky on United’s home turf, all of the old tensions could quickly rise to the surface.