Arsenal vs Manchester United has long been a “make a note in your calendar” fixture for football fans, even more so when they meet in knockout competition.
True, its stature has diminished somewhat from its late 1990s/early 2000s heyday courtesy of the rise of petrol-charged clubs and the simple fact that Elneny vs Fellaini doesn’t quite have the same draw that Vieira vs Keane had.
But when these two giants of English football do battle under the Friday night lights at the Emirates, there’ll be more riding on it than normal.
No, we’re not talking about the coveted place in the FA Cup fifth round, nor the opportunity for Alexis Sanchez to come back and haunt his old club.
Instead, it’s a chance for Arsenal fans to settle a grudge they’ve held against United’s caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for almost 20 years.
But why are Gooners gunning for Gunnar? Let’s take a trip down memory lane…
The 1999 Champions League fluke
Without question, Manchester United’s treble winning campaign of 1998/99 is the greatest luck story in English football history. They pipped Arsenal to the Premier League post on the last day of the season and relied on a one-in-a-million goal from Ryan Giggs to squeeze past them in the FA Cup semi-final, denying Arsenal back-to-back doubles in the process.
Arsenal supporters’ moods were dreadfully glum as the Champions League final and an unthinkable United treble approached. But just as they prepared to celebrate their great rivals falling at the final hurdle against Bayern Munich, none other than ex-Tottenham striker Teddy popped up to equalise.
No matter, surely the Germans would do the business in extra time or penalties?
Nope, they didn’t even get that far thanks to that baby-faced nuisance Solskjaer, who popped up to snatch victory at the death. The Norwegian immediately became one of the most disliked footballers in the red half of north London.
And things got much, much worse four years later…
The Sol Campbell incident
Wednesday 16 April 2003. Arsenal vs Manchester United. A home win would put the Gunners joint-top of the table alongside the Red Devils with just five games to go.
With the score delicately poised at 2-2 as the game enters the final 10 minutes, Arsenal push forward seeking a winner which would swing the title race in their favour. Enter Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
As Sol Campbell charges out of defence in the 82nd minute, he brushes off an unseen Solskjaer to protect the ball – causing the United player to go down like a lead balloon. Campbell is subsequently sent off for a “deliberate” elbow, robbing Arsenal of their most important player for the remainder of the match and, crucially, the title run-in.
“Sol is so important to us and he’ll be a big loss,” admitted Dennis Bergkamp after the red card appeal was dismissed. “He is massive not only in the way he plays, but also in terms of his inspiration to the rest of us.”
Campbell was missing when Arsenal surrendered their Premier League crown in a shock 3-2 loss at home to relegation-threatened Leeds two weeks later. Would that have happened had the Englishman been available? No way.
Arsenal fans will never forget what Solskjaer did that night.
The top four chase
As nice as winning silverware is (note to Tottenham fans: it really is very nice, you should try it some time) it’s fair to say the FA Cup is not at the top of either Arsenal or United’s agendas this season. Champions League qualification is very much the priority.
The Red Devils looked down and out in the top four race under the dire Mourinho regime, but they’re a different animal under Solskjaer. It’s seven wins from seven for the interim boss, a run which includes six straight Premier League victories.
That has catapulted them back into the mixer, level on points with Arsenal and just three behind fourth-placed Chelsea.
If Arsenal were to inflict the first defeat of Solskjaer’s reign, it could very well dent United’s confidence going into the final third of the Premier League season – whilst simultaneously giving their own stuttering campaign a much-needed boost.
Any victory over Manchester United is sweet for Arsenal fans. But, getting one over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on this particular occasion is sure to make it even more delectable.