Can the Arsenal-Manchester United Rivalry Be Re-Established in City-Chelsea Era?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2015

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The big game of the weekend in the Premier League is indeed that: a big one—but not a huge one. Not a pivotal one in the context of trophies, not one that will dictate where the trophy will end up going.

Manchester United against Arsenal was, for a decade at least, one of the biggest grudge matches in the country; a rivalry borne of success and silverware, the fixture inevitably produced talking points, showcases of goals and cards, big talk from both camps in the lead-up to the game and, after the 90 minutes, one set of fans deliriously sure that they were headed for celebrations come the end of the season.

Located at opposite ends of the country, with largely different fanbase backgrounds and certainly numbers, the Red Devils against the Gunners was the showpiece occasion of flashy Sky Sports adverts and had the biggest players on the billboards highlighting the power of the league. Right now, it's the third-place play-off.

It's a game that is potentially worth a lot in that one side could qualify for the group stage of the Champions League rather than facing a qualifier, but that is immeasurably short in prestige compared to the battles of yesteryear.

As the worth of the game diminished, so too the intensity of the rivalry. In a micro-era dominated by the oil-fuelled pound signs of local rivals for each team, Manchester City and Chelsea, with new faces and new ambitions, can that rivalry be reignited and re-established?

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Looking back at the memorable games between the two clubs in the late 1990s and early 00s, the faces in the teams gave an indication as to why there was such animosity, aggression and general fire around the game.

Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane. Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel. Martin Keown and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Every pairing that came across each other was fiercely combative, brooking no defeat easily and challenging wholeheartedly for every tackle, never mind game. Nobody backed down, nobody shirked their duty.

22 Aug 1999:  Roy Keane of Manchester United clashes with Patrick Vieira of Arsenal during the FA Carling Premiership match against Arsenal played at Highbury in London, England.  The match finished in a 2-1 win to Manchester United.  \ Mandatory Credit:C
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

They were tough, determined and at times overly aggressive—but each of them absolutely had the quality, the genuine footballing ability to back up that fighting spirit. The skill of those individuals got the teams to the top, but the mental strength kept them there.

Now...it's all a bit nice. There are plenty of technical footballers, no shortage of skill or on-the-ball dreaminess from the likes of a Mesut Ozil or a Juan Mata, but could you imagine those two flying into a tackle with such ferociousness that the ball bursts, as it did with Wright-Schmeichel? Is Kieran Gibbs the pizza-throwing type, or Daley Blind likely to clatter his arms across Olivier Giroud if he misses a penalty?

None of that is to say that "English football needs its aggression back" or any such hyperbolic nonsense, of course the technical merits of players come first, but the absolute refusal to accommodate defeat is not apparent in the current squads on anywhere near the level that the previous ones had. Partly that can be put down the managerial changes: in United, for the departure of Alex Ferguson, and in Arsenal, for the demise, it must be admitted, of Arsene Wenger over the years.

The squads have transitioned enormously from those crazy days when, truth be told, the fighting got out of hand at times as the rivalry reached its crescendo. Naturally, changing demands in the league and abroad, and the changing styles or ideas of the managements have meant these shifts coincided with a different type of player.

It hasn't been awfully successful for Arsenal, who haven't so much as finished as league runners-up for a full decade, but United continued until Ferguson departed, switching rivalries from Arsenal to Manchester City as the more local event took centre stage.

Local derbies, though, will always be fiercely competed and enjoyed. A long-distance rivalry such as United-Arsenal was something different—simply the top two teams of the time, stylistically different and geographically remote from each other, battling with blood and thunder, skill and panache, every time they did battle. It certainly wasn't all about the bruises and bickering press conferences, by any means.

For every late Keane challenge there was a Ryan Giggs slalom run. For each Arsenal red card—and there were a lot of them early on—there was a Marc Overmars skipping past a despairing tackle to finish coolly into the far corner.

Title-winning games and cup finals, huge fixtures throughout.

Now they fight for third, while nearby rivals Chelsea and Manchester City aim for the big prizes. City won the league last year and Chelsea have already wrapped it up this term—while both teams also met in the FA Women's Cup semi-final and also played each other over two legs in the FA Youth Cup final. It is, for all intents and purposes, an utter domination of the blue halves of London and Manchester rather than the red, nowadays.

Familiar faces, old friends. And a few foes.
Familiar faces, old friends. And a few foes.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Out of the last six domestic trophies—Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Community Shield—handed out, City or Chelsea have won four of them. Arsenal took the FA Cup last year and could add another on May 30, of course, but beyond that it's Community Shields or nothing for United and the Gunners in the past couple of years.

Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho keeps up his bitter watch against anybody who criticises his team, winning trophies as he goes almost unopposed, and the gap seems to widen for the chasing pack.

Perhaps it will take a squad overhaul, or perhaps just a couple of victories in critical matches to get back on track. Certainly, Louis van Gaal is the type of manager who wouldn't back down from a personal crusade from one club to beat his own.

Maybe this weekend will provide the spark to reignite what had previously been a hugely entertaining battle between two giants...but the fact it is days away and it has raised barely a murmur above warring fans in relegation-scrapping teams, a departing hero from Liverpool and Champions League semi-finals that these two sides could only dream about this year, suggests it's not a probability.

Spending big might help both teams get back to the top, but as it was the mentality beforehand that kept them there, so it needs to be again. The quality must be married to the aggressive intent to win, and at present, both teams lack it, certainly to compete at the very top.

Still, maybe we'll see a couple of red cards to kick it all off again on Sunday...

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