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Manchester United 1 Arsenal 1 – 19/02/1999 – the greatest Premier League game ever?

Do you ever hear people talking about Game of Thrones as the greatest TV show ever? And do you like me wonder if they’ve ever seen The Sopranos? That’s how I feel when people talk about Liverpool 4 Newcastle 3 as the greatest game in Premier League history.

Now don’t get me wrong, of course it’s an entertaining game, some of the finishing is sublime and it effectively ended a title race. But how can a game with defending that poor, with Calamity James at his peak in goal and midfield as vacant as that be the greatest game that 26 years of the Premier League has to offer?

February 17th will be the 19 year anniversary of a stone cold classic that barely gets a mention when the great Premier League games are discussed.

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On a Wednesday night in teeming rain Manchester United played defending champions Arsenal at Old Trafford in the midst of the greatest title battle in Premier League history. This would be the first of 4 classics they would play that year, followed by an epic, magnum opus of a cup semi final and replay and a tense, gritty affair at Highbury at the start of the following season in August.

Before we get to the game we need to put the title race and rivalry into context. That night the league table saw Manchester United lead Chelsea by four points and Arsenal by five but with both London clubs having a game in hand. By the end of the season Chelsea finished third having lost only 3 games, still a record. Arsenal and Manchester United lost only 1 game between them from Boxing Day to the end of the season – United ending 20 unbeaten and Arsenal losing only 1 game of their last 21, away at Leeds on May 11th.

In short this was three teams in unprecedented runs of form, with two of those, Manchester United and Arsenal, two genuinely great sides who peaked concurrently in a battle that only ended on the last day of the season.

The match:

Manchester United 442

Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, P Neville; Beckham, Keane, Butt (Giggs), Blomqvist(Scholes); Yorke, Cole

Arsenal 442

Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn(Vivas); Parlour, Vieira, Hughes, Overmars(Diawara); Anelka, Kanu (Garde)

The match kicked off under the Old Trafford lights in pouring rain, rain that had been pouring most of the day but this only added to the epic feel to the encounter, both sides were missing key players with Giggs and Scholes only named as substitutes, coming back from injury and suspension. Arsenal were missing Petit and Bergkamp, Bergkamp’s absence allowing Kanu his Premier League debut.

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Anelka and Kanu showed some glimpses of good link up play early on amongst some thundering challenges. Anelka set up Parlour for a snap volley that Schmeichel palmed away before Lee Dixon nearly caught the Dane out with a smart chipped effort. Dwight Yorke and Marc Overmars then both squandered chances they should have converted, then as United turned the screw Andy Cole produced a great turn inside and finish that brought the first of many great saves from Seaman, this was was followed almost immediately by one from Roy Keane after the Irishman had marourded through the Arsenal defence.

Then after a deep cross from Blomqvist landed at the feet of Ronnie Johnsen, United’s unrelenting pressure looked to have told. The Norwegian centre back was tripped by Ray Parlour and a penalty was given. The decision was labelled controversial at the time but watched with modern eyes looked an absolute stone waller. With Dennis Irwin out the spot kick duties fell to 25 goal Dwight Yorke. Yorke’s run up was long and very straight causing him to have a closed body as he tried to roll it to Seaman’s left. The awkward body position saw Yorke’s kick miss the target. A huge let off for Arsenal. However United were undeterred, a trademark swept pass by Beckham saw Cole turn Bould with a lovely flick of the outside of his boot only to be denied again by Seaman. A thrilling breathless half had somehow ended goalless.

The stalemate lasted only two minutes into the second half though. Ray Parlour fed new striker Kanu who beautifully, lanquidly dummied and dragged it past Jaap Staam only to be denied by a last ditch tackle by Phil Neville. The ball however fell to Nicolas Anelka who drilled it into the roof of the net. Manchester United were now behind to a team who had not conceded a goal in two months and only 11 all season.

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The set back did little to deter them and their suffocating attack ploughed on.

There was still time for Keane and Vieira to have their obligatory scuffle, with Vieira lashing out after Keane pulled him back. Both were lucky to stay on the pitch but the generosity of the referee allowed another chapter of the greatest player on player rivalry in the leagues history. On this occasion Keane was on top and he drove his team on to an equaliser on the hour mark as Beckham’s cross field ball allowed Phil Neville to cut back on to his right foot and drift a ball on to Andy Cole’a head. Seaman was left flailing in the 6 yard box as the score was levelled.

Manchester United’s rhythmic, hypnotic attack pressed on for a winner and Beckham fed Cole who beat Adams but had his shot blocked by a great last ditch tackle from Bould, then seconds later Keane fizzed a ball into Yorke allowing him to dummy it to play in Cole again who scuffed his shot into the turf allowing Seaman to make another save. Arsenal were bending but not breaking.

Reflecting its importance at the top of the table the match now resembled a cup tie. As did the raucous Old Trafford crowd. United brought on Giggs and Scholes on to fashion up a winner but it was Anelka who nearly scored the next goal as he just failed to get a deft enough touch as he nipped in front of Johnson. Then Giggs drove another pass into Yorke who again dummied it to Cole in telepathic fashion. This time Cole should have played Beckham in for a free shot on the right but again fired at Seaman.

The chances were relentless, but still Arsenal remained level the match up between the best attack and best defence was living up to its billing.

A lovely Giggs run and ball then ended up at the feet of Yorke in the six yard box only for David Seaman to meet him as soon as he hit it and produce another great save. There was still time was Scholes to waltz through the Arsenal defence only to be crudely hooked back by Bould who was lucky to stay on as a Scholes thunderbolt in acres of space was on the cards. That was that a point each did neither team much good at the time. Eventually Manchester United held off Arsenal on the last day to win the league by a point, the then of course won the treble, leaving Arsenal empty handed. No team ever been so talented, so on form and ended up with nothing.

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This was a pulsating match in the midst of an unbelievable title race. Chances came and went but were created with moments of skill not random lapses as at Anfield three years earlier. If the midfields that night in 1996 were non existent the midfielders in 1999 were at their visceral best with Roy Keane the games outstanding player. His all action style mixed with his underrated, measured passing deserved a win but Arsenal’s grit held through in a season they only conceded 17 goals.

This match was the primal centre piece of a rivalry as two of the greatest teams in the history of English football simultaneously peaked and if that doesn’t make it a better match than the random carnage of Liverpool 4 Newcastle 3 I don’t know what does.

Written by Gary Robinson.

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