On This Day: Giggs tears Arsenal to ribbons
Often considered English football's greatest rivalry in the modern era, Manchester United vs Arsenal was, for nearly a decade, the battle between the country's finest two teams.
Founded equally upon technical quality and fierce mentalities, the two teams in red consistently competed for titles and cups as the pendulum swung from Ferguson to Wenger, Keane to Vieira, Giggs to Overmars and back, time and time again.
On this day in 1999, United faced Arsenal in an FA Cup semi-final replay that lived up to every expectation of the two great teams. After a Roy Keane goal was ruled out for offside at Villa Park on the Sunday lunchtime, the sides saw out a goalless draw and the tie went to a replay.
The year before, Arsenal had knocked United off the perch we had so well established in the dominant mid-90s era. It was the first title Arsenal had won under Wenger as the Gunners overhauled a significant points gap in the final few weeks of the season. They won the FA Cup a fortnight later.
United had achieved the same feat twice in the preceding years, lifting the Double in both 1994 and 1996. And so over the space of five seasons, three Doubles had been won – two by United, one by Arsenal.
And so back to Villa Park on a Wednesday night in April and the animosity between Arsenal and United was no longer in its infancy, but rather at its peak.
United took the lead 18 minutes in. Teddy Sheringham escaped tight marking and poked the ball back to David Beckham. Arsenal had not conceded a goal in nearly 12 hours of football. It required something brilliant and Beckham provided that, his right-footed strike curling away from a diving Seaman and into the left side-netting.
Highlights: Arsenal 1 United 2 (1999)Video
Over the next two hours, a stunning drama evolved filled with more spectacular goals, controversial decisions, a red card, a penalty save and one sensational run from Ryan Giggs.
Few games can match the spectacle which 30,223 saw at Villa Park that day.
Giggs came off the bench on 62 minutes with United still leading by that Beckham goal, but Arsenal were soon level as Bergkamp's shot from distance deflected past Schmeichel.
As every great game does, the pendulum in this particular fixture swung from one team to the other throughout. Three minutes after Arsenal's equaliser, the Gunners were celebrating again after Anelka rounded Schmeichel to score. But the linesman had correctly flagged for offside. Celebrations subdued, the tide was with Wenger's side and that became obvious when Keane was shown a second yellow card for a tackle on Overmars.
Despite the one-man advantage, Arsenal's chances were few thanks to the crucial interventions of Ronny Johnsen in the United defence. With only injury time remaining, though, Phil Neville brought Ray Parlour down inside the penalty area and Arsenal were inches away from ending United's Treble aspirations before they had truly taken hold.
“I didn’t know it was the last minute,” United goalkeeper Schmeichel would later reveal.
As Bergkamp struck the penalty to Schmeichel's left, the great Dane turned his shot away and urged United forward.
The teams wearied. Fans watched Bergkamp and Beckham both concede possession, and then Petit and Scholes too. Half-time of extra-time came and went and in the 108th-minute, the Guardian's minute-by-minute match report told its readers:
“Not much is happening.”
It was true. But then Martin Tyler noted a
“weary” pass from Vieira and Ryan Giggs strode forward.
“From nowhere, as if he’s just popped up out of the ground, Ryan got on the ball,” Sir Alex Ferguson later said.
The best goal in FA Cup historyVideo
“Steve McClaren, myself and Jim Ryan are going: ‘Take it in the corner flag,’ because by that time we were down to 10 men and getting to penalties gave us a chance. ‘Take it in the corner flag… go on, run it to the corner flag.’”
But with 11 touches, Giggs charged forward, weaved through four flailing Arsenal defenders and lashed the ball over Seaman with venom. Without breaking stride, the Welshman turned and ran back where he had come from, his own half, stripping his shirt off, whirling it through the air and sending a raucous United end into delirium. As Martin Tyler said, he'd torn them to ribbons.
It was a game that only Ferguson's United and Wenger's Arsenal could have produced together; the toing and froing of two of the country's greatest ever football teams. And that pendulum that swung throughout the 1990s and early 2000s moved back in United's direction. Arsenal had been targeting a second consecutive Double-winning season. Instead, United won the Treble.