As we continue our look back at moments that have defined English football, we take a trip back to Arsenal’s record breaking invincible team of 2003/04 and the biggest single threat to their hopes of going 38 games unbeaten that season.
No. 2: Manchester United v Arsenal at Old Trafford, 21st September 2003
Considering just how many classic clashes there have been between these two old foes over the last fifteen years, this meeting should have been nothing but a footnote on the tapestry that has become the Premier League’s most pivotal rivalry.
In reality, as the board went up to signal three minutes of stoppage time at Old Trafford, pundits were reflecting on a bad tempered stalemate between two sides striving to get out of second gear. The talk looked set to be of Patrick Vieira’s late red card, as the Frenchman was given a second booking for a petulant kick at Ruud van Nistelrooy, and the subsequent anger of the Arsenal players at the reaction of the Dutchman, encouraging referee Steve Bennett to reach for his top pocket.
Chances across the 90 minutes had been scarce – a Ryan Giggs free-kick hit the outside of the frame of the goal and Dennis Bergkamp had nearly played in Vieira, but those brief moments aside, the two sides had well and truly cancelled each other out.
The true significance of this result would not be felt until Arsenal completed their historic season with a win over Leicester City eight months later, but when Martin Keown felled Uruguayan Diego Forlan in the box during added time, the controversial van Nistelrooy was given the chance to complete a miserable week for Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman, having witnessed his side’s 3-0 mid-week capitulation at the hands of Italian giants Inter Milan, was surely about to see his prediction that an Arsenal side could go the season unbeaten dashed for another year.
Looking unusually ruffled, having missed both his previous attempts from the spot, van Nistelrooy smashed the resultant penalty against Jens Lehmann’s crossbar, and in the ensuing chaos was confronted by a succession of angry Arsenal players, crowding the crestfallen striker as he made his way out of the penalty area.
The animosity between the two sets of players had long been established. Van Nistelrooy was a particular figure of hate for the longer established members of the Gunners’ squad, and the intensity of the penalty situation boiled over and resulted in an ugly post match scuffle as referee Bennett brought the game to a close.
The fallout from the final moments of the game was far reaching. Both sides were admonished in the press for being unable to control their players but the punishments imposed by the FA looked set to have a major impact on Arsenal’s hopes of winning the Premier League title, four key players were fined and banned. Right back Lauren received the most severe sanctions, being forced to sit out four Premier League fixtures. Martin Keown was banned for three matches and both Ray Parlour and Patrick Vieira were given single game suspensions.
Arsenal were also fined heavily, and many suggested that the Gunners, who had been unable to find fluidity during the early weeks of the season, would struggle to keep up with United and new rivals Chelsea.
The significance of the disciplinary action should have served as a warning to United’s central defender Rio Ferdinand who was awaiting an FA hearing after missing a scheduled drug test. The eight-month ban later imposed on the former West Ham man was arguably the most significant moment of the season, although it was the punishments laid on Lauren, Keown, Parlour and Vieira that initially grabbed the headlines.
Arsenal would go on to hit their stride after the New Year and whilst they drew eleven further games, their profligacy never looked like being punished by their inconsistent rivals. History will eventually forget that late summer’s afternoon when Manchester United came six inches away from destroying Arsenal’s invincible season before it even got off the ground, and the ugly ramifications that followed. Ultimately, the success of the months ahead was the defining element of the invincibles’ crown.
As a footnote, Martin Keown never started another Premier League match for Arsenal after the announcement of the punishments inflicted on the Gunners for their involvement in the Old Trafford tussle. Jens Lehmann, who watched Ruud van Nistelrooy’s penalty cannon off his crossbar, would wait another thirteen months before tasting a first league defeat in Arsenal colours.
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