On reflection this was a game that launched Arsenal as a major Premiership force under the management of Arsene Wenger. It was the Frenchman’s first full season in charge of the Gunners and his revolutionary continental approach was already taking effect at Highbury.
The days of ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal’ were disappearing fast as changes in personnel and style of play helped propel them as contenders to Manchester United’s throne at the top of the burgeoning Premiership – after a few years tarnished by off-field scandals and mediocrity. United had managed to see off challenges from the likes of Liverpool and Newcastle United in previous years to dominate the Premiership. In the cultured, erudite Wenger and his cosmopolitan team United manager Sir Alex Ferguson realised he was facing a worthy and lasting foe. Thus the great rivalry began.
By the time the two sides met at Highbury on November 9, 1997 both were leading the charge at the top. Arsenal had recorded their first defeat of the season just the weekend before while United went into the fixture having also lost only once during the league campaign. The Red Devils had been rocked some weeks earlier with the loss of influential captain Roy Keane to a cruciate ligament injury, but still presented a formidable challenge for the North London side to overcome. Arsenal meanwhile had to make do without their talisman, Dennis Bergkamp, through suspension.
The game took place on a Sunday live in front of the Sky Sports cameras at a packed Highbury. The Gunners were off to a flying start when Bergkamp’s replacement Nicolas Anelka gave them the lead on seven minutes. A shot from Marc Overmars was deflected into the path of the teenage Frenchman on the left. Anelka moved inside to drive his shot through a crowded penalty area and beat Peter Schmeichel at the near post. It was a goal that signalled the arrival of Anelka on the big stage.
Just 20 minutes later Arsenal doubled their advantage. A corner was flicked out to the right for Patrick Vieira to meet the ball with a ferocious shot into the roof of the net that gave the big Dane no chance. It was no more than the Gunners concerted pressure deserved but United soon showcased their enviable ability to claw their way back into games.
Within the space of eight minutes Teddy Sheringham scored twice to draw United level. On 33 minutes he evaded both Tony Adams and Gilles Grimandi to head home a cross from the right – unchallenged from six yards out. On 41 minutes United equalised following an excellent breakaway – typical of many from the side of that era. Sheringham finished the move by receiving the ball from Ryan Giggs and proceeding to hit a speculative shot from outside the area past Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman – and improving his standing with the United faithful in the process. Prior to this game Sheringham had not made a favourable impact following his move to Old Trafford that summer.
The game was marred shortly before half-time when objects were thrown by members of the crowd with Schmeichel unfortunately one of those on the receiving end. Arsenal was dealt a further blow when Vieira had to be replaced at half-time due to a ligament injury he suffered when scoring his goal. He was replaced by Steve Bould in the reshuffle as the Gunners looked to nullify United’s dangerous attacks.
The momentum was with United in the second-half as they had more of the possession while it was Arsenal who had to look for openings on the counter attack. The reigning champions were stunned with six minutes to go after Arsenal had forced a corner. Nigel Winterburn took the set-piece sending the ball to the edge of the six-yard box where former England captain David Platt powered home a header in trademark fashion. It turned out to be the winning goal. After a mixed few seasons at Highbury since his much heralded return from Serie A the goal showed that Platt could still make an impact in the big games.
Arsenal held on for the win which kept them just behind United in top spot. The victory served as their intent in the short-term but would not be the pivotal fixture of the season. Arguably the return game at Old Trafford the following spring was – where a single Overmars goal settled a tight game during an incredible finish to the Gunners’ season.
Before Christmas it appeared that United would stroll to the title but three defeats in four games at the turn of the year – surprise losses to Southampton, Coventry and Leicester – would prove decisive. Arsenal still had plenty of ground to make up but crucially they possessed games in hand. They won 10 in a row at the end of an 18 match unbeaten run in the league to make them worthy champions. They went on to clinch the title with two games to spare and added the FA Cup to complete an impressive Double.
While this fixture was perhaps not the defining game of the 1997/98 season it was one of the more memorable. It saw two of the best sides in Premiership history come together to produce a thrilling end to end game with a twist and most importantly some great football. From this clash onwards the mind games between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger began as the Gunners looked set to challenge Manchester United’s dominance into the new millennium. For the likes of Platt it was a last hurrah at the top of the game while for the relatively unknown Vieira and Anelka it proved to be just the beginning.
For a generation of players dubbed ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ it was a first taste of coming second and enduring an end to a season without a trophy. The next season they put the hurt behind them and went on to win the Treble as Arsenal ran them close again.
Arsenal 3-2 Manchester United – Anelka 7, Vieira 27, Platt 84, Sheringham 33 and 41
Arsenal : Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Vieira (Bould 45), Adams, Platt, Wright, Anelka (Wreh 79), Overmars, Parlour, Grimandi
Subs not used: Manninger, Boa Morte, Hughes
Manchester United: Schmeichel, G. Neville, Pallister (Johnsen 38), Beckham, Butt, Cole, Sheringham, Giggs (Solskjaer 71) , P. Neville, Scholes, Berg
Subs not used: McClair, Poborsky, Van der Gouw