“There goes the captain,” stated Martin Tyler as Patrick Vieira stepped up to take the final penalty, “and there goes the cup, back to Arsenal,” he proclaimed excitedly as Vieira wheeled away in jubilation.
Those were the scenes of the FA Cup final in 2005 between Arsenal and Manchester United. It was to be Vieira’s last kick of the ball as an Arsenal player, and the last time Arsenal won a trophy.
A lot has changed since that fateful night in Cardiff. With the departure of Vieira and Roy Keane, both teams lost the fire in their bellies. Arsenal’s drop in stature as a club since then served to make this fixture just like any other clash between two good teams, an almost amicable match played with mutual respect.
From the infamous ‘pizzagate’ to the scenes following Ruud Van Nistlerooy’s missed penalty, Arsenal and United’s bitter rivalry produced many dramatic and memorable scenes over the years. While these would be unwelcome in any other fixture, between these two teams, they somehow managed to add an extra edge to the game that helped transcend it to more than just mere football.
The two greatest managers the Premier League has ever seen trying to outwit each other as, on the pitch, twenty two players play with their heart on their sleeve. This fixture showcased the true passion of the two teams, their hunger to fight, their will to defy the odds and above all, their unbendable desire to win.
While Arsenal’s move from their celebrated Highbury to their new stadium, the larger Emirates Stadium, made sense in the long term, especially considering the relatively low seating capacity of Highbury, it made resources exceptionally tight for Arsenal in the short run.
To make ends meet, Wenger was forced to ship off his most prized assets. Arsenal became a selling club. Qualifying for the Champions League was the main objective and Arsenal seemingly forgot how to win in the process. United became more concerned with newly rich Chelsea and Manchester City.
This year, that has changed. Arsenal has romped to the top of the table and for the first time since 2005, has not lost one or more of their best players. They signed Mesut Ozil for more than twice their previous transfer record, a statement of intent, and an announcement of their return.
Even though it is still too early to start thinking of trophies, with the loss at Old Trafford highlighting their lack of maturity and strength-in-depth, this young team has made its mark on the minds of its rivals.
This was evident by the pre-match remarks of David Moyes, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs. All three emphasized that Arsenal were not favourites, all three quick to light a flame that had died a long time ago. Robin Van Persie’s celebration after his superbly taken winner confirmed it. This was no ‘Arsenal man’ as Wenger had called him before the match, this wasn’t the kid who had scored the third penalty in that FA Cup final for Arsenal, this was United’s talisman, this was a man who had no feelings on the pitch for his former club.
Manchester United closed the gap on Arsenal to five points and are back in the race for the title. This will only serve to increase the rekindled rivalry between these two. The title race is on and the fiercest rivalry in England since the turn of the century has begun again.
United may have won the battle last Sunday, but Arsenal’s war cry has stirred back emotions that were thought to be long gone. The old rivalry, seemingly settled, has started again.
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