In the latest edition of ‘Inside The Vault‘, we look back at the day when Arsenal’s incredible unbeaten run in the Premier League came to an end.
On this day 15 years ago, Manchester United finally ended Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles” historic run of unbeaten matches.
Arsenal entered the game at Old Trafford on the back of an unprecedented 49-match unbeaten streak.
The Gunners arrived in Manchester as reigning Premier League champions, and were already 11 points clear of the Red Devils in the league.
There was already plenty of bad blood between the rivals, with United coming agonizingly close to ending Arsenal’s unbeaten run in the previous season’s corresponding fixture, only for the usually reliable Ruud van Nistelrooy to miss a late penalty with the scores locked at 0-0.
A year earlier, in 2002, Arsenal clinched the Premier League title at the Theatre of Dreams.
Arsene Wenger’s men had also beaten the Red Devils 3-1 in the Community Shield at the Millenium Stadium as recently as August.
In contrast to the Gunners, United had endured a wretched start to the season, drawing five of their opening nine matches.
The hosts were also dealt a significant blow ahead of the must-win game, with captain Roy Keane ruled out due to the flue.
Rio Ferdinand captained Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in Keane’s absence, while Patrick Vieira overcame a late fitness test to make the starting Arsenal eleven.
There was already plenty of bad blood between the rivals, with United coming agonizingly close to ending Arsenal’s unbeaten run in the previous season’s corresponding fixture, only for the usually reliable Ruud van Nistelrooy to miss a late penalty with the scores locked at 0-0 in a game that became known as ‘The Battle of Old Trafford’.
To make matters worse, a year earlier, in 2002, Arsenal had clinched the Premier League title at the Theatre of Dreams.
Understandably, United were in no mood to allow Arsenal to take their incredible record to 50-0 at Old Trafford.
24/10 – On this day in 2004, Manchester United end Arsenal’s English top-flight record 49-game unbeaten run with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford. Poopers. pic.twitter.com/7ryw9Aq1Bb
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 24, 2019
Unsurprisingly, the game produced plenty of controversy and drama.
Wayne Rooney, celebrating his 19th birthday, had an opportunity to give United an early lead in the eighth minute after a careless mistake from Vieira.
However, the covering Kolo Toure made an outstanding block to deny the young striker, before his defensive partner Sol Campbell threw himself in front of Ryan Giggs’ follow up.
Arsenal were left incensed when Freddie Ljungberg was barged to the ground by Ferdinand – who was the last covering defender – in the 19th minute, only for referee Mike Riley to wave play on.
Van Nistelrooy was also lucky to escape punishment when he caught England international Ashley Cole on the knee with his studs.
The Dutch striker was not even cautioned, but would subsequently be handed a three-match ban for the challenge.
Roy Carroll reacted sharply to deny Dennis Bergkamp in the box after Jose Antonio Reyes’ clever through ball.
The United ‘keeper made another good save to deny Thierry Henry – who had scored seven of the Gunners’ last nine goals against the Red Devils in the 42nd minute, ensuring the match remained scoreless at half time.
Both sides were struggling to create clear cut chances in the opening 45 minutes, with Cole coming out on top on his intriguing battle with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bergkamp flashed a shot wide in the second half as Wenger’s visitors pushed for a breakthrough, with Gabriel Heinze heading wide from a corner at the other end.
Heinze tested Jens Lehmann with another effort from distance midway through the second half.
The turning point of the match came in the 71st minute, when United were awarded an extremely contentious penalty.
Rooney cut inside into the box and went to ground under a challenge from Sol Campbell, with Riley pointing to the stop immediately.
Replays showed that there was no contact, but this was long before the introduction of VAR.
Van Nistelrooy placed the ball on the spot, finding himself in an almost identical position to the previous year’s corresponding fixture.
This time, however, van Nistelrooy stroked his penalty past Lehmann to give the Red Devils the lead.
For the first time in 49 matches, Arsenal found themselves behind in the last 20 minutes of a Premier League match.
The Gunners searched desperately for an equalizer, but were fortunate not to concede a penalty when Cole appeared to foul Ronaldo in the box with 12 minutes remaining.
United killed the game in the 90th minute with a clinical counter-attacking move. with Rooney grabbing a goal on his birthday after an unselfish pass from Alan Smith.
The final whistle heralded a much-needed victory for Fergie men, and brought ‘The Invincbles” wonderful run to an emphatic end.
“Riley decided the game, like we know he can do at Old Trafford,” Wenger fumed afterwards. “We were robbed.”
The three points took United to within eight of leaders of Arsenal, with Chelsea using the Gunners’ slip-up to close the gap to two points.
There were ugly scenes in the tunnel after the full time whistle, including a now infamous moment which saw Ferguson hit with a slice of pizza, an action which Cesc Fabregas would later own up to.
The alleged food fight has seen the game earn the label of ‘The Battle of the Buffet’, and is also sometimes referred to as ‘Pizzagate’.
Arsenal’s form dipped alarmingly following the defeat at Old Trafford, with the champions falling five points behind Chelsea in December.
Chelsea would go on to claim their first Premier League title under new manager Jose Mourinho, with Arsenal and United finishing second and third respectively.
Man Utd: Carroll, Gary Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze, Ronaldo (Smith 85), Phil Neville, Scholes, Giggs, Rooney, van Nistelrooy (Saha 90). Subs Not Used: Howard, Brown, Miller.
Arsenal: Lehmann, Lauren, Campbell, Toure, Cole, Ljungberg, Vieira, Edu, Reyes (Pires 70), Bergkamp, Henry. Subs Not Used: Van Persie, Taylor, Fabregas, Cygan.