On October 24, 2004, Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford, looking to turn their 49-match unbeaten run into an unprecedented half-century against their fiercest rivals. But for Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’, their trip to the north would leave a bitter taste as they lost 2-0 in an ill-tempered encounter, laden with controversy following a soft penalty decision in United’s favour. The night ended with the infamous ‘Pizza-gate’ incident and re-ignited the long-running feud between the two clubs.
For Arsenal, the repercussions from that tempestuous night lasted long into the season. They had kicked-off in Manchester as league leaders, five points clear of Chelsea and a massive 11 ahead of Manchester United. But on the eve of the return fixture at Highbury on February 1, they had succumbed to the challenges of their rivals and now lay second, 10 points behind Chelsea and just one ahead of United.
So it came of no surprise that this encounter would be loaded with aggression and animosity. Nobody, however, could have predicted that the two sides would have engaged in hostilities so early in the evening. Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira confronted Gary Neville during the warm-up and again in the tunnel before the match, reportedly taking note of Neville’s apparent persistent fouling in the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford earlier in the season. The two were pulled apart by stewards but not before Roy Keane could get involved, sparking the infamous pre-match tunnel bust-up between the two charismatic talismen.
Referee Graham Poll would have known long before he arrived at Highbury that he had a busy night ahead of him, but when Ashley Cole dived inside the penalty area under challenge from Gabriel Heinze in the third minute, his difficult task of controlling the two battling giants was made almost impossible. The Argentine defender and his teammates were incensed that the left-back had escaped unpunished, and this incident set the tone for a fiery and turbulent encounter between the great rivals, in which every refereeing decision was fiercely contested by both sides.
If Vieira had been riled by the pre-match fracas, his football did not seem to suffer, as he put the home side ahead in the 8th minute, heading in a Thierry Henry corner from close range. Highbury erupted – an explosion the likes of which are seldom seen inside the walls of the more subdued Emirates Stadium.
A spirited United reacted in the way expected by all who have come to know Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Boasting a five-man midfield of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Keane, Darren Fletcher and Cristiano Ronaldo, United moved the ball sublimely, taking advantage of their opponents’ comparatively light midfield to get in amongst the Arsenal ranks and control the flow of the game. Their efforts paid off when Scholes, having picked up a loose ball from Sol Campbell, sent a cross-field pass into the patch of Wayne Rooney, who laid the ball back to Giggs in the edge of the penalty area. The winger struck the ball with the outside of his left boot and a deflection off the inside of Ashley Cole’s left leg sent the ball past Almunia and into the bottom corner.
The equaliser galvanized the home side into response and the tie was now in full flow. Arsenal countered United’s brief period of dominance and began to play the sleek, stylish football which has become synonymous with the Wenger era. The champions probed and, in the 35th minute, took the lead for the second time in the match. Vieira, rampant in the centre of midfield, played a long, down-field ball to Henry who, given time by Rio Ferdinand, was able to turn on the edge of the box and place a pass into the path Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman finished in typically ruthless fashion, drilling the ball between the legs of Roy Carroll from a slender angle.
Whatever it was Sir Alex Ferguson said to his players during the interval seemed to have the desired effect. Trailing 2-1 at half-time, United emerged from the tunnel (this time without incident) with purpose and intent. Within 10 minutes of the restart, they were level – Rooney linking up with Giggs, who sent a still emerging Ronaldo clear into the box with a perfectly weighted through-ball. The winger used his blistering pace to see off the challenge of Campbell before firing a low, left-footed shot past Almunia.
If Arsenal had been wishing for a moment to catch their breath, their slim hopes were to be smashed as United pressed in search of the lead. Rooney’s close-range free-kick struck the post but Ferguson’s men had to wait just four minutes to break the deadlock. The imperious Keane, whose performance had been matched only by the sublime Giggs, sent the winger free down the right flank after dispossessing Robert Pires just inside the Arsenal half. Giggs latched on to the ball and, with the on-rushing Almunia seemingly committed and in no-man’s land, curled a sumptuous, right-footed ball across the face of goal – the oncoming Ronaldo duly tapping in on the line to give the visitors a deserved lead.
The Gunners needed a way back into the game, and in the 69th minute they were handed a gift when Mikael Silvestre foolishly headbutted Freddie Ljungberg, as both sides’ aggression began to spill over. Graham Poll was stood mere yards away, and had no choice but to send the Frenchman off, consigning United to the fate of playing the last 20 minutes with 10 men. Wes Brown replaced Ronaldo in the 70th minute, and the game looked set to become the kind of attack vs. defence encounter often seen when a side are reduced to ten men. Yet, it was the visitors who looked the more dangerous, and while United’s seemingly solid defence contained and frustrated the Arsenal attack, they continued to counter swiftly through Rooney and Louis Saha, who had replaced Giggs in the 77th minute.
With the game almost over, it was the unlikeliest of sources who secured the three points for Manchester United. In the 89th minute, Substitute John O’Shea caught the Arsenal defence out of position, and, having latched onto a through-ball from Paul Scholes, exquisitely lobbed Almunia from the edge of the box. O’Shea turned to his teammates with a look of complete bewilderment, his shock and amazement mirrored by the millions of viewers who had just witnessed a goal of sheer class from the usually anonymous Irishman.
And with that, the game was won. Six goals, six yellow cards and one dismissal later, Manchester United took all three points from a match which will be remembered as one of the most electric and compelling encounters between these two great rivals to date.