The latest in our series of classic matches looks at the afternoon in March 1998 when the heated rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United truly began.
Managers Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson would spend the next seven or eight years sniping at each other in the press and sharing the league title between them (until a certain charismatic Portuguese manager arrived at Chelsea), and it could all be traced back to this particular match at Old Trafford.
Man United, Premier League title winners in the two previous seasons, had built up a nine-point lead at the top with eight games to play in the 1997/98 season. However, Arsenal had three games in hand on their title rivals, and had a nine-game unbeaten run, but knew that a win for the home side would give them a huge psychological edge going into the home stretch.
Arsenal hadn’t won in any of their six previous trips to Old Trafford, but had a newfound sense of confidence in Wenger’s first full year in charge.
Wenger might have added some attacking flair in the form of Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka, and midfield steel of Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, but the defence had been so strong that Wenger had not dared to alter it upon his arrival. Though they were without goalkeeper David Seaman, the back four of Lee DIxon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams and Martin Keown all started.
Man United, for their part, were badly missing captain Roy Keane and, as such, seemed to lack that commanding presence that could have kept Arsenal at bay most years.
The visitors could smell blood early on – Overmars, Christopher Wreh and Dennis Bergkamp all looked threatening and confident (Overmars in particular was causing havoc for the Man United defence), while the home side looked entirely bereft of confidence all of a sudden.
Overmars and Ray Parlour came close in the first half, while at the other end Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham were being smothered by an Arsenal rearguard set up to contain and frustrate. That being said, the two strikers did have one great chance each, but backup goalkeeper Alex Manninger was more than equal to the task on both occasions.
Arsenal looked the more dangerous of the two sides, but it took until ten minutes from time that their hard work finally paid off. Substitute Anelka flicked n the long ball into the path of Overmars, who controlled the ball with his head before racing clear to slide past Peter Schmeichel and break the deadlock in favour of the Gunners.
Man United tried in vain to look for a way back into the match, with Schmeichel even racing into the box for a late corner. However, that came to nothing, and would have the added consequence of the Danish keeper picking up a hamstring injury that was to rule him out of the Champions League quarter final against Monaco several days later (a game that finished 1-1 at Old Trafford but saw the French side progress on away goals).
Arsenal had won the day and, still with three games in hand, had cut Man United’s lead at the top to six points.
From there, there would be no let-up in Arsenal’s bid to snatch the Premier League trophy from Man United’s grasp. Wenger’s men won all of their next eight league games, sealing the title with a 4-0 victory over Everton with two games to spare. They would go on to complete the double by defeating Newcastle at Wembley in the FA Cup final.
Man United, meanwhile, remained unbeaten until the end of the campaign, but home draws against Liverpool and Newcastle in April effectively ended their challenge for another year.
Arsenal and Man United would go on to have the strongest rivalry of the Premier League era, with the FA Cup final of 2005, effectively serving as the closing of that particular chapter of English football.
Man United: Schmeichel, G. Neville, Johnsen, Berg, Irwin, Beckham, Scholes, Curtis, P. Neville, Cole, Sheringham
Subs: Thornley (Curtis 52), Solskjaer (P. Neville 77), May (Johnsen 79)
Subs Not Used: Van Der Gouw, McClair
Arsenal: Manninger, Dixon, Adams, Keown, Winterburn, Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Wreh, Bergkamp
Subs: Anelka (Wreh 66), Garde (Parlour 70)
Subs Not Used: Lukic, Grimandi, Hughes