There was a time not so long ago when going to play Arsenal away was one of the most nerve-wracking games of the season. With the two clubs going head to head for the title every season, you knew that we would be facing one of the strongest sides in the league and you knew the result of the game could have an impact on who won the title.
In 97-98 they beat us home and away, then won the league by one point. The following season they thrashed us 3-0 at their ground. The season after we pinched a win there thanks to a very late goal from Roy Keane. The following season we lost 1-0. The season after, 01-02, we took an early lead through Paul Scholes but they scored three second half goals to win. The following season we drew 2-2 there, Campbell was sent off, and we maintained our three point lead at the top, but they had a game in hand. The year after we drew 1-1 thanks to a very late Louis Saha goal. The year after was my favourite of the lot, the 4-2 in the season we had already ended their unbeaten run. The next season was our last meeting at Highbury and resulted in an anti-climatic 0-0 draw. It looked as though we were going to win the first game between the clubs at the Emirates, before two goals in the last five minutes from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry won them the game. The following season Cristiano Ronaldo looked to have won it for us with 10 minutes to go but this time William Gallas scored a last minute goal to equalise. We were beaten there 2-1 the season after, 08-09, but by this time the fierce and hate-filled rivalry was over. We beat them home and away in the Champions League that season too but it felt nothing like it would have if that game had been played ten years earlier.
Today will likely be one of the more painful meetings between the two clubs for Arsenal fans, regardless of the score. It won’t match the embarrassment of last season’s 8-2 or the 6-1 in 2001 but it will hurt for different reasons. Arsenal haven’t won a trophy since 2005 and any hopes they had of possibly rivalling us for a title any time soon died when they sold us their best player and captain last summer. Not only do they have to see Van Persie swanning around at the Emirates in our shirt, but they have to watch their players applaud him on to the pitch first as a champion. It took him just eight months to do at United what Arsenal couldn’t achieve in the eight years he played there.
For United fans, we approach this game totally differently. Whilst it has been several years since this game was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of the season, I can’t imagine we will have played Arsenal away and cared as little about the result as we do today. Of course we want to win and of course we want our players to give a good account of themselves, but if they don’t? Oh well. We’re champions.
You imagine we will see a lot of changes and that players who haven’t started as many games as others will be brought in. Michael Carrick, after dragging us through the season, will finally be given a rest. Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Nani, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones etc. should all see more playing time over the next few weeks. They can play without pressure, go out there and enjoy themselves, and hopefully we will see some good football as a result. Even better, we might get to see glimpses of the youngsters, like Nick Powell and Adnan Januzaj (who was registered to play with the #44 shirt earlier this week).
Whilst we have nothing to play for, Arsenal will want to cement themselves in the top four, so will give it their all. Their fans will be singing about winning the league at Old Trafford over ten years ago, and in response, we can sing about being champions now. But if they want to delve in to the past with their 2002 Old Trafford win, we can do the same, and remind them that Sir Alex Ferguson and Ryan Giggs have now won as many league titles as Arsenal Football Club.
£20 wins you…
Welbeck to score any time: £70
Van Persie to score first: £120
United winning at half-time and full-time: £230