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The Invincibles (Part Two)

Contunuing the series look at the famous Invincibles, which saw Arsenal go through the entire 2003 – 2004 Premier League season unbeaten.

For Part One click here.

We will now look at some of the key matches in that iconic season, beginning with, arguably, the most controversial of them all.

September 21st, 2003, Manchester United v Arsenal

In the late 1990s and the first part of the 21st century, Arsenal and Manchester United were the two biggest clubs in English football and the matches between them were the highlights of any season.

There was little love lost between Wenger and Sir Alec Ferguson at the time, although they came to develop a deep respect and friendship for each other in later life (Ferguson pays tribute to the Frenchman in this documentary).

However, at that time, games between the two produced plenty of flashpoints, few more in this game, with United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy at the heart of the controversy.

The Dutchman had joined United in 2001 from PSV Eindhoven, with his transfer delayed by a year because of his injury problems.

Although he was a fine goal scorer, he also had a reputation for theatrics and gamesmanship on the pitch,  and there had been several incidents between him and Arsenal players before this match.

The Gunners had begun the season with four successive victories, at home to Everton and Aston Villa and away at Middlesbrough and Manchester City, before dropping their first points at home to Portsmouth.

However, they had just been humiliated at home by Inter Milan in the first group game of that year’s Champions League, so confidence was a little damaged heading to Old Trafford.

With Sol Campbell missing following a family death, veteran Martin Keown was drafted into replace him and he would have a central role in what ensued.

It was a typically cagey affair between the two sides, although Ryan Giggs did hit the outside of the post with a  free kick after 13 minutes. Shortly afterwards, Roy Keane was shown a yellow card, the first of eight handed out by referee Steve Bennett in the course of the afternoon.

Nothing could separate the teams deep into the second half, although Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira was also booked in the 77th minute.

Three minutes later though it all burst into life. Vieira and Nistelrooy went into a tackle together and the Dutchman left a foot in on his French opponent, Angered Vieira kicked out and, although van Nistelrooy had not been touched, he fell to the floor as if he had been hit by a sniper’s bullet.

Vieira was shown a second yellow by referee Bennett and angry Arsenal players accused the striker of cheating, Four minutes later van Nistelrooy also saw yellow, as blood began to boil on both sides, but the drama was not finished.

Deep into injury time a cross was played into the box from the right and Diego Forlan went down under an innocuous challenge by Keown. To the incredulity of the Arsenal players Bennett pointed to the spot and awarded the home side a penalty.

Inevitably, van Nistelrooy took it, but he smacked his effort against the bar and it bounced away to safety. Bennett blew the whistle almost immediately afterwards, which was the signal for Arsenal players en masse to confront van Nistelrooy.

Keown was in his face, and Ray Parlour, Lauren and Ashley Cole also surrounded him, before the striker escaped to safety. They were all later given bans and fines by the FA, whilst Sir Alec Ferguson accused the Gunners of being unable to control their p[layers.

Arsène Wenger for his part commented that van Nistelrooy did not help himself with his behaviour.

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