England’s better when Manchester United-Arsenal matters

If you wanted to show someone what the fuss over English soccer was all about, and you only had one match to use as evidence, you would slap down a DVD/Blu-Ray/mp4 of the 1999 FA Cup semifinal replay between Arsenal and Manchester United. Think of anything you would want to see in your perfect game of soccer — two brilliant teams, world-class individuals, stunning goals, great saves, gratuitous violence, penalties, red cards … bare-chested Welshmen — and that game had it.

That game was the pinnacle of the most magnificent rivalry in the modern English game. In the late 1990s and early aughts, Manchester United-Arsenal far and away the best fixture on the calendar: two modern dynasties at the peak of their respective powers, going at each other’s throats, each as likely to outplay the other as to kick them off the park.

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Most games between the top four or five clubs in the Premier League get hyped to within an inch of their lives, and often turn to be fascinating tactical battles that are actually dull as shit. Arsenal and United almost always delivered, though; or, at least, they used to. As these two teams meet again on Monday the FA Cup quarterfinals, there is no question that a once thrilling matchup has lost quite a bit of its intrigue.
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What happened? Arsène Wenger lost his nerve, and Arsenal slowly descended into a parody of itself. As Manchester United continued as the dominant force in English soccer, the rivalry mostly withered away. We were even left with the pathetic sight of Alex Ferguson actually being nice to Wenger. The greatest nu-rivalry in England was no more. United and Arsenal were on different planes.

Recently though, the gap has closed. Arsenal hasn’t improved, of course, but United has met the Gunners at their level: the second tier. Ferguson’s 2013 champions have been blown up, and Louis van Gaal is still, to put it gently, getting his shit together. As such, United and Arsenal are once again fierce rivals in the pursuit of glory; only glory in this case is third place, and perhaps a domestic cup.

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The fact that the FA Cup is the only chance either has at winning a trophy adds to Monday’s quarterfinal. Neither United nor Arsenal has been in any danger of competing for the league this year, and Arsenal has already Arsenaled to the brink in the Champions League. Liverpool is the only other decent team left in the FA Cup, so even though this is “only” a quarterfinal, both teams should be fully aware of the stakes.

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These two teams currently occupy the last two Champions League qualifying places, but they’re far from sitting comfortably. With the three teams behind them showing few signs of dropping off, a win on Monday could provide one highly flawed team with some much needed momentum.

Depending on the day of the week, both of these teams are anywhere from one to four players away from being The Real Deal, but flawed teams can still thrill. Both teams have players that produce moments of magic out of nowhere, just like both teams have weaknesses glaring enough to throw up an absolute cockup at any time.

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From a competitiveness standpoint, it is hard to expect the new version of this rivalry to have the same physicality as it used to. Juan Mata and Mesut Özil are champagne footballers, but they’re hardly going to clatter into each other. If we’re lucky, Marcos Rojo — United’s best defender, and also a bit of a loon — leaves a marker on Alexis Sánchez to set the tone. Or perhaps Francis Coquelin, playing with a rage fueled by making his debut in the 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford, scythes down Daley Blind. We don’t want to see anyone get injured, but a few kicks and sly stamps could set the needed tone for a genuinely competitive match, rather the limp-dick fluff that this fixture has served up in recent years.
Tempers at Highbury

Photo: Clive Brunskill /Allsport.

Soccer in England is having a down year. The Premier League “race” has been one team marching alone, while the same, familiar names are occupying the other four places. The teams at the bottom are trying their best to out-awful each other, while the clubs in the middle are effectively already on holiday.

The return of real excitement to Manchester United playing Arsenal is one of our last threads of hope. The rivalry may be the undercard these days instead of the main event, but we need these two teams playing each other to mean something again. Hopefully that starts on Monday.