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Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal: Defeating the Invincibles

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side ended the 2003-04 Premier League season as champions. They were also unbeaten. The only side to achieve this since Preston North End in the 1880’s.

Notably, however, despite defeating all comers, they did not defeat United in 2003/04. United held the Gunners to draws both home and away and were a crossbar away from defeating Arsenal in the Old Trafford encounter when Ruud van Nistelrooy blasted a stoppage-time penalty against the crossbar.

The 2003-04 season had started the same way the previous one had ended. Arsenal looked impenetrable and had improved their unbeaten record to 49-0 by the time they arrived in Manchester to face a United side who had a woeful start to the season, having drawn five of their opening nine games, languishing in sixth place in the Premier League.

It was a cagey game of few chances, with neither side wanting to lose. Arsenal were desperate to extend their unbeaten run to the magic figure of 50-0 and United were not prepared for that to happen at their expense, particularly not in their own backyard which had been the site of Arsenal’s title victory of 1997-98. A moment that so wounded United, they responded the following year with their historic Treble win of trophies.

In the 71st minute, Wayne Rooney was tripped in the box and Van Nistelrooy was presented with the opportunity to lay the ghost of 2003-04 to rest. This time he calmly converted his penalty to give United a 1-0 lead. Van Nistelrooy’s reaction was so emotional, it could be seen how much the previous season’s penalty miss had affected him.

From there the game became extremely tetchy. Arsenal could feel the game slipping away which led to clumsy and cynical fouls.

With the game stretched, United broke on the counter-attack, with Alan Smith.

Smith had the opportunity to score but unselfishly squared the ball to Rooney who had run with him and had an open goal at his mercy, with Smith having taken the goalkeeper Lehmann’s attention, allowing Rooney to mark his 19th birthday with a goal.

It was game over. The shock of defeat led to displays of pettiness from members of the Arsenal squad and trouble in the tunnel and dressing rooms after the game. Infamously, Ferguson was hit by flying pizza, thrown by Arsenal midfielder, Cesc Fabregas.

Arsenal’s season deteriorated from there which opened the League up for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea to take advantage and sweep to their first title in 50 years.

United were shockingly defeated 2-0 by Portsmouth in their next game, destroying the impact of the Arsenal victory. United could not make up the points deficit. They did, however, memorably overcome Arsenal once more, with a 4-2 win at the Emirates Stadium in a match, remembered as much for the pre-match shenanigans as well as the classic action that came after when Roy Keane aggressively confronted Patrick Vieira in the tunnel after the Frenchman had been attempting to intimidate Gary Neville.

Unfortunately, for United, Arsenal would get the last laugh in 2004/05, defeating United in the FA Cup final on penalties in a game, United had dominated. However, United were a team in transition and two years later were Premier League Champions again as they embarked on another five years of domestic and European dominance. Arsenal would never win the Premier League again.

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