If you’ve been following our Premier League recaps the past few weeks and months, you know that the Top Four race is incredibly tight this season. With just a few games left in the campaign, Arsenal and Manchester United are in a pitched fight for fourth place. (Depending on who you ask and how the wind is blowing, said fight may also include Liverpool and Manchester City, but for now we’ll just keep things simple.) On Sunday they’ll meet once again, and the result will go a long way toward deciding who gets to play Champions League football next season.
Not that this fixture needed any more goosing, mind you. Arsenal and United have been fierce rivals for ages, and some of their clashes in the Premier League era have produced great football and ridiculous stories. It helps that games between these two are rarely played just for pride.
This week we look back at a clash from the early aughts that all but decided the Premier League title that season.
So the stakes for the late-season match at Highbury in April, 2003 were pretty straightforward. Arsenal win, they jump back into first place. United win, they give themselves a nice, likely-unassailable cushion at the top of the table. Arsenal were able to play something close to their strongest XI, which back then included the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, and Sol Campbell. (They had to call up second-choice goalkeeper Stuart Taylor.) So, you know, not a bad lineup. United had to make some difficult decisions for the teamsheet and rolled out with David Beckham and the Brothers Neville on the bench. They still had a strong side, of course, but given the exclusions and that Arsenal hadn’t lost at home since October, the Gunners had a bit of wind in their sails.
Sometimes big marquee fixtures like this tend to disappoint, with both sides playing cautiously for fear of setting themselves up for a disastrous loss. Especially in games with this much on the line. Not this night, though. Both teams were out for blood.
Even the fans were het up. When you get to the part of the video that’s right before kickoff (about 1:50), let the video play and just close your eyes. Listen to that crowd. Hear the unrestrained bloodlust in their voices. Imagine what it was like to be there. (If you WERE there, please email or Twitter me because wow do I want to talk to you!)
Anyway, like I said, neither team was messing around tonight. Some frantic possession battles marked the opening minutes, some hard tackles, Roy Keane being his usual charming self. You get the idea. The first 20 minutes or so were a fairly even contest but United seemed to have a slight edge in the proceedings.
And in the 24th minute, that early advantage paid off. Ruud van Nistelrooy put the visitors ahead after he beat Campbell on the flank, stormed the box with Martin Keown. hot on his trail, and finally chipped Stuart Taylor from eight yards out and found the back of the net.
Soon after that, Patrick Vieira was forced to come off due to an injury, because things weren’t difficult enough. The Gunners scrambled for the rest of the half to try and get back into the match, but went into the tunnel at halftime down a goal and missing their captain.
Arsenal had nowhere to go but up in the second half, and slowly but surely they clawed their way back into the proceedings. And just six minutes into Act II, the wind finally shifted in their favor. Ashley Cole was played into the box after making a sneaky overlapping run, fooled his defender and took his shot. The ball hit Thierry Henry’s calves and ricocheted toward the near post, in the opposite direction of where Fabien Barthez was diving. The score was leveled and Arsenal sensed that this was their moment.
United tried to hang on and repel the sudden surge from their hosts but they couldn’t get off the back foot. Just about ten minutes after Arsenal equalized came the breakthrough the home fans had been screaming for. Henry ran onto a lovely through ball— while, it must be said, in an offside position— and went one-on-one with Barthez, slotting it at the near post and giving Arsenal a 2-1 lead. The sound from the fans nearly brought Highbury crashing down around them. This was their moment of triumph. They were back in the driver’s seat. The moment was theirs. The title was in reach.
It was a lovely thought, at least.
But barely a minute later, Ryan Giggs canceled the parade with a thundering header from a cross. A small typhoon of chaos from the away supporters, hushed silence everywhere else.
Arsenal desperately fought to get back on top in the time remaining. But their hopes of getting out of the game ended unceremoniously in the 83rd when Campbell was sent off after throwing an elbow into Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s face. The best they could hope for now was to hang on for the draw.
Which they did. Barely.
But this was the night Arsenal’s title hopes died. After the 2-2 draw, they secured three wins and a draw from their last five games of the season, most of whom were played without Campbell. United won out on their remaining games and finished five points ahead of Arsenal and with their 8th Premier League title on record.
While the title is well out of both teams’ grasp this season, there is still a Top Four finish to settle. Whatever the quality of the football, don’t expect this to be boring. Kickoff is at 11am Eastern on NBC Sports.