When Manchester United and Arsenal meet in the final few weeks of the season, it’s not usually in a game that feels – as this one does – like such a dead rubber.
Both sides can still qualify for next season’s Champions League, and both still have silverware to play for in other competitions, but it’s looking increasingly like the league is becoming an afterthought for both. Especially Jose Mourinho’s United.
When you think of end-of-season battles between the two, it’s hard not to cast your mind back to 1999, and the epic FA Cup semi-final between the best English football had to offer. It didn’t disappoint.
The thought of 1999 conjures mythical images in the minds of Manchester United fans these days. Their team may have been all-conquering, yet it was far from dominant.
The Champions League final at the Camp Nou ended in crowning, three-fold glory, but it wouldn’t have been possible if their other triumphs weren’t quite so on-edge. The self-belief and positive energy gleaned from horrendously difficult FA Cup and Premier League triumphs is surely what tipped the balance in Barcelona. In the haze of those few weeks at the turn of the century and the epic proportions of the achievement mean that some of the reality often gets lost.
Ironically, remembering the reality only adds to the achievement.
A bruising Premier League season left United and Arsenal battling for supremacy between each other, and Arsene Wenger’s side had, the previous season, won a double themselves. But United’s grand finale started when the two sides met in the FA Cup semi-final.
The game lives long in the memory for one reason, a goal which stands out above the rest, but it was a game befitting the occasion: an epic battle between the best in an FA Cup tie on neutral soil. Dennis Bergkamp canceled out an early David Beckham strike, and the game was destined for extra time and the entry of Ryan Giggs into folklore. And yet, if it weren’t for a last minute penalty save from Peter Schmeichel, that would never have happened.
Bergkamp, who had already scored, stepped up in the final minute of the 90 with the chance to stamp Arsenal’s dominance over English football once again: victory in the cup semi – their cup – would have slapped down the challengers to their throne and perhaps not just in one competition. Perhaps Arsenal, who lost out on the title by only one point, would have gone on to win the Premier League, too.
Those are the fine margins.
As it was, Ryan Giggs scored that goal and Arsenal’s psychological edge was lost. Arsenal were broken. So too was their title challenge.
If anyone thinks that a treble could ever be won by the now-cliched ‘one-man team’, they are just wrong. Not even Lionel Messi dominates Spain and Europe to that level of supremacy. But there was something about that United side that made the team so much more than the sum of its parts: something that must have come from the emotional and precarious nature of their victories. There’s just something about the most delicate crystal that makes it the most valuable.
If it weren’t for the Schmeichel save from Bergkamp, there would be no moment of Giggs history. If there were no Giggs magic, there may well have been no David Beckham strike, no Andy Cole lob, no comeback against Tottenham and no Premier League title.
Without those wins, would there have been chances for Teddy Sheringham and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer to take the epicness of victory one level further? There may not have been a treble if it weren’t for the small moments, but there could well have been no trophy at all.
What United’s 1999 side reminds us is that the small moments create the big ones, and all taken together, they make for epic ones. In turn, they become mythical.
Almost two decades later, we approach an Arsenal v Manchester United tie with much less hope for a classic. And yet both sides, despite their disappointing seasons, still have plenty to play for: United for victory in the only cup competition they have yet to get their hands on, and Arsenal for another FA Cup, a victory which would take them to 13 wins in the competition, more than anyone else. Wenger can win his seventh, too, a number which would take him above any other manager.
It’s hard to look at this match as anything other than a dead rubber, and yet it’s a small moment in a game like this which can create the big one. Victory will instill belief, and defeat could damage the remainder of the season, jeopardising the bigger prizes on the horizon.