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The Arsenal F.C.–Manchester United F.C. rivalry is a notable rivalry in English football as both clubs are recognised as having great history and traditions. Although the two clubs have frequently been in the same division as each other since 1919, the rivalry has largely arisen since around 1990, and many of the clashes in recent times between the two teams have been solely due to the perceived enmity between managers Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson.
The match has been noted for on-field trouble, particularly the contests in 1990, 2003 and 2004, although it is perceived by former Arsenal player Lee Dixon that this has much diminished in recent years. Manchester United have also recently claimed that the rivalry has cooled from those "heated" exchanges.
Although the two clubs had previously contested many important matches, such as the 1979 FA Cup Final, the rivalry is generally perceived to have begun with a notorious match at Old Trafford on 20 October 1990, which resulted in both clubs being docked points in the 1990–91 First Division. Alex Ferguson has stated that he believes that the rivalry predates this by a few years, however, to a match in January 1987 when David Rocastle was sent off for retaliating against a foul by Norman Whiteside.
Another key point in this rivalry was during 2003-2004 Premier League season. During this year Arsenal went on to win the league with an unbeaten record. They were labeled as "The Invincibles" and during their first game with Manchester United, they drew 0–0 at Old Trafford in a match dubbed the "Battle of Old Trafford". Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira was sent off in the 80th minute for two bookable offences and in second half stoppage time, Gunners defender Martin Keown brought down United's Diego Forlán in the Arsenal penalty area, Ruud van Nistelrooy stepped up for the spot kick but his shot rebounded off the crossbar. This was followed by scenes of jubilation from the Arsenal players, especially Martin Keown who confronted van Nistelrooy after his miss. The resulting scuffle led to another fracas after the final whistle, which ended up with four players from both sides being given yellow cards.
The next game between these two clubs was held at Highbury, which resulted in a 1–1 tie. At the end of the season, Arsenal ended with 90 points while Manchester United finished with 75 points in the third position. Arsenal eclipsed Manchester United and truly began a hatred between the two clubs. Even famous arguments and fights occurred between players, such as Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane. Arsenal went on to hold a national record of 49 games unbeaten, which was ended by a game with Manchester United. This game was later called "Battle of the Buffet". This match was a huge catalyst in the ongoing rivalry of these two clubs.
In December 2010, United manager Alex Ferguson made a personal plea to the United fans to no longer sing a "sick" chant at Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, as those kind of chants from fans were considered an embarrassment to Manchester United. With both teams going for the Premier League title in May 2011, Arsenal won their first game against Manchester United since November 2008, to leave United just three points ahead of Chelsea and six ahead of Arsenal going into the final three games of the season. Nevertheless, United won the league, nine points ahead of Chelsea and twelve points ahead of Arsenal.
In August 2011, Arsenal suffered their heaviest league defeat in 84 years as they lost 8–2 to Manchester United at Old Trafford. Arsenal had not lost a league game by such a margin since 1927 when they lost 7–0 to West Ham United in the old Football League First Division. This was also the first time they had conceded eight goals in a game since 1896, when they lost 8–0 to the now defunct Loughborough F.C. in the old Football League Second Division.
In the days before the current rivalry, there were many memorable matches between the two sides.
Perhaps the most memorable came on 1 February 1958, when the two sides met in a league fixture at Highbury - the last league game that United played before the Munich air disaster five days later, which claimed the lives of eight of their players and saw two other players injured to such an extent that they never played again. United won the game 5-4, with goals from Tommy Taylor (twice), Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet. Five of the United players who would lose their lives as a result of crash took to the field in the game - captain and full-back Roger Byrne, right-half Eddie Colman, centre-half Mark Jones, left-half Duncan Edwards and centre-forward Tommy Taylor.
Another high profile clash came more than 20 years later, in the final of the FA Cup on 12 May 1979. A 100,000-strong crowd saw Arsenal take a 2-0 lead in the first half thanks to goals from Brian Talbot and Frank Stapleton, and with just five minutes left on the clock their lead was still intact. Then, in the 86th minute, Gordon McQueen pulled a goal back for United, and two minutes later they equalised with a goal from Sammy McIlroy. However, barely a minute after United equalised, Arsenal's Alan Sunderland scored a last-gasp goal to win the cup 3-2 for Arsenal.
On 19 August 1989, at the beginning of Alex Ferguson's fourth season as Manchester United manager (and with the club still yet to win any silverware under his management), defending league champions Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford for the first league game of the season. United won 4-1 with goals from Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Brian McClair and new signing Neil Webb, with Arsenal's consolation goal being scored by David Rocastle. Arsenal finished the season fourth in the league with 62 points, putting them 17 points adrift of champions Liverpool. Although United had a disappointing season in the league, finishing 13th (five points and five places clear of the relegation zone), they ended the season as winners of the FA Cup.
In 1990-91, Arsenal won the second of their league titles under the management of George Graham, losing just one of their 38 league games all season. They sealed their title on 6 May 1991, just before the kick-off in their league game against United at Highbury, which they went on to win 3-1. Their title was confirmed without kicking a ball as their last remaining challengers Liverpool had been defeated by Nottingham Forest earlier in the day. The season had already seen two high profile clashes between United and Arsenal - one being the ill tempered league clash at Old Trafford on 20 October, the other in the Football League Cup just over a month later. The two clubs were drawn to play at Highbury in the fourth round tie on 28 November 1990. United won the tie 6-2, with 19-year-old winger Lee Sharpe scoring a hat-trick.