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'The greatest FA Cup tie in Manchester United history'

Manchester United and Arsenal. The two top teams in England, fierce rivals on the field and in the dugouts, in a late-season FA Cup fight to the finish with ramifications on an equally absorbing title race; even the most rudimentary synopsis screams ‘blockbuster.’

What unfolded lived up to the billing. Spectacular goals, pitch invasions, a disallowed goal, a red card and an injury-time penalty stop which saved a season; no amount of words could ever convey the emotive nature of a genuine classic in which United’s Treble bid straddled a knife edge before plunging a dagger into Arsenal’s hearts. It may never be matched for quality, incident and drama. Subplot after absorbing subplot interwove to fashion the perfect football spectacle, won in extra time through a goal by Ryan Giggs which stands comparison with any scored in United’s history. 

To think: the game shouldn’t even have taken place. Three days earlier, the sides met in another engaging Villa Park tussle which also went the distance, but was notable for a decision by referee David Elleray – on the say-so of his linesman, Graham Atkins – to disallow Roy Keane’s first-half goal for offside.
“It was absolutely ridiculous,”
said Sir Alex Ferguson.
“I have watched it on TV and it's quite amazing. But it doesn't matter. It wasn't a goal and we have just got to get on with it.”

The teams reconvened at the same venue three days later and it was United who began brighter by striking the first goal of the game. Hitherto, Arsenal hadn’t conceded a goal in 11 and a half hours of football; breaching their fabled defence required something special. As Patrick Vieira’s half-hit volley bobbled through to him, Peter Schmeichel had already spotted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer attempting to find space behind Martin Keown. The Dane’s hefty punt only found the Arsenal defender, but his poor header found the onrushing David Beckham, who struggled to bridle the ball but eventually nudged it to Teddy Sheringham. The striker considered his options, allowed space to develop and teed up Beckham to whip a wonderful 25-yard effort into David Seaman’s bottom corner.

Beckham beats Seaman from 25 yardsVideo

The Gunners only emerged as an attacking force as half-time approached, and they carried the momentum into the second period – even though the restart was delayed as Emmanuel Petit sought a pair of mittens to guard against the chill of the English Spring. Penned back but comfortable, United increasingly looked to counter-attack. When Tony Adams failed to cut out Ronny Johnsen’s clearing header, Solskjaer strode through on goal and, despite the attentions of Keown, rifled in a shot which Seaman brilliantly clutched on his goal line. The tie might have been settled then. 

Instead, it was nudged back into the balance on 69 minutes as Nigel Winterburn’s pass infield found Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman dropped between Johnsen and Keane, turned and took on an long-range shot which struck Jaap Stam on the knee and bounced beyond the helpless Schmeichel.

Then Bergkamp equalised from rangeVideo

“That Arsenal team between 1997 and 1999 was the best domestic team I ever faced,”
said Gary Neville, and United were suddenly weathering a storm from the reigning Premier League champions. Though the Reds’ defiance wavered, it was never extinguished in a torrid final 20 minutes.

Substitute Nicolas Anelka tucked in a close-range finish after Bergkamp’s shot had been parried by Schmeichel, only for a linesman’s flag to correctly chalk it off. Unaware, Arsenal’s players and pitch-invading supporters celebrated for over 30 seconds before realising. Their ignorance provoked much mirth from the 20,000 United fans, whose relief was instantly dashed as Keane lunged into a challenge on Marc Overmars, prompting a second yellow and mandatory red card.

Why Anelka's 'goal' was disallowedVideo

Was Keane harshly red carded?Video

Arsenal forged no openings until injury-time, when Parlour’s run into the area was clumsily halted by Phil Neville, prompting the incontestable award of a penalty. It was make or break for United except, curiously, in the mind of the man on whom their hopes rested.
“I didn’t know it was the last minute,”
Schmeichel later admitted.
“I thought that if Arsenal scored we still had 10 minutes to try and equalise!”
Regardless of his blissful ignorance, the giant Dane sprung to United’s rescue by spectacularly parrying away Bergkamp’s spot-kick and injecting life back into the Treble dream.

Schmeichel's last-minute penalty saveVideo

Then, from nothing, came everything. Vieira played a wearied pass in search of Lee Dixon, but instead found a bare, yawning lawn 10 yards inside the Arsenal half. 
“From nowhere, as if he’s just popped up out of the ground, Ryan got on the ball,’ recounts Sir Alex.
“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.’”

It took Giggs just 11 touches to move the ball 55 yards, bypassing challenges from Vieira, Dixon, Keown and Dixon again before Adams hurtled across to try and make a last-ditch block.
“I think he was tired by then because he beat us so many times he thought ‘I’ll just lash it,’”
smiles Dixon.

The left-footed shot, from deep within the Arsenal area but at a daunting angle, was like a detonation in terms of power and devastation. As it crossed the line, Seaman, Adams and Keown were strewn prostrate about the turf, looking upwards to see it thunder into the roof of the net. Bedlam ensued, along with a celebration just as memorable as the goal itself. 

Giggs, now running along the touchline at full pelt, whipped off his shirt and whirled it around his head, exposing a rarely-seen hirsute chest to an unsuspecting audience - a small price for both parties to pay.
“I’ve never done a celebration like that before,’ says Giggs.
“To be honest with you it was a bit of a relief because I’d come on as sub and I’d given the ball away three or four times, so I was having a bit of a beast and obviously that got me out of it. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know why I did it. Like the goal, it was purely instinctive, and I just thought:
“who cares?’”

The best goal in FA Cup historyVideo

The supporters who had trickled onto the field to join Giggs in celebration were among a flood of fans who poured on as the final whistle sounded. United’s exhausted players had nowhere to go, nor the energy to take them there. Some were chaired from the field shoulder-high, in scenes worthy of some overblown Hollywood climax but somehow entirely apt for the preceding events.

The thrilling victory may not have had the last-gasp plot twist of the tale which would unfold in Camp Nou, but for the sheer, blinding entertainment served up by a galaxy of stars at Villa Park, it lays serious claim to being the most absorbing epic in Manchester United history.