It was one of the most infamous moments in the recent history of English soccer. On a rainy Manchester night in late 2004, minutes after yet another titanic battle between the two teams that had dominated the Premier League for much of the previous decade, amid a hectic scuffle of bodies in the tunnel inside Old Trafford, a pizza splattered into the face of legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. “Battle of the Buffet,” as it gleefully became known in the English tabloids, was, depending on your perspective, either the zenith or the nadir of a rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United that had become increasingly intense and rancorous.
With each meeting the wincing ferocity with which both sets of players clattered into each other on the pitch became greater, while the barbs traded by the opposing managers -- hardened Glaswegian Ferguson and erudite Frenchman Arsène Wenger -- off it grew ever sharper.
Between them the clubs had won the Premier League title for the preceding nine years, with the other finishing runners-up in all but three of those seasons. That meeting a decade ago saw Arsenal’s record run of 49 league matches unbeaten come to an end at the home of their bitter rivals. Few knew it then, but it was also to mark the end of the two foes’ supremacy.
Roman Abramovich was one of those captivated in the crowd at Old Trafford that night, a year on from the Russian oligarch having flown into Chelsea and changed the face of English soccer by pouring previously unimaginable amounts of cash in the team. When in 2004 a brash young coach from Portugal, José Mourinho, arrived to match Abramovich’s millions with an equal amount of bravado, there was no stopping Chelsea. They won the Premier League at a canter for the next two seasons. While Manchester United under Ferguson’s expert guidance fought back, Manchester City’s buy out by Abu Dhabi United Group, with even more money than Abramovich, further altered the landscape.
Arsenal have not won the title since that pizza was thrown in anger, while, after the retirement of Ferguson, the extent of Manchester United’s struggles to keep pace with the big-spending Chelsea and Manchester City have been laid bare. The two old rivals meet once more on Saturday, with both still firmly playing catch up.
Off the pitch, the duo’s position continues to be healthy. While Manchester United reported on Tuesday a revenue drop for the first three months of the current financial year on the back of a woeful seventh-place finish last season and failure to qualify for the Champions League, they still have comfortably the biggest turnover in the richest league in the world. Behind them in second place, thanks to a prestigious history and a new corporate-haven 60,000 seat stadium, sit Arsenal.
Despite that solid infrastructure, both clubs have been reluctant to sign the mammoth checks required to lure the biggest global-name players to their door, while at the same time being critical of the noveau-riches Chelsea and Manchester City for doing just that. But reality has recently hit. This past summer, Arsenal and Manchester United, by some distance, spent more money than they had ever done before in the transfer window.
They have discovered, though, that opening the purse strings is no guarantee of success. With Arsenal in sixth place, 12 points behind leaders Chelsea, and Manchester United a point and a place further back, both can realistically already kiss goodbye to the possibility of lifting the Premier League trophy next May.
The failings of the two teams have been remarkably similar. First, there are serious questions about whether the considerable money spent this summer was targeted at the right areas of their squads. Continuing a frustrating trend under Wenger’s stewardship, Arsenal has have been left short defensively, while failing to add a midfielder with the type of strength of mind and body that enabled them to stand toe-to-toe with Manchester United in those fierce clashes at the turn of the millennium. United, now under the guidance of shrewd, uber-confident Dutchman Louis van Gaal, have allowed themselves to be caught short in the very same positions.
For both teams, injuries have only exacerbated the shortcomings. When they run out at the Emirates on Saturday, a full 19 players could be missing from the lineups. Arsenal's fitness problems remain significant, with Mesut Özil, Olivier Giroud, Mathieu Debuchy among those sidelined, but at least for now Manchester United have taken their place as the champions of the injury table. Key midfield signing Daley Blind suffered a potentially serious knee injury for the Netherlands in midweek, while record transfer Ángel di María, goalkeeper David de Gea and England duo Michael Carrick and Luke Shaw have all returned from international duty with knocks that put their participation at the weekend in jeopardy. Marcos Rojo remains ruled out, along with Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard, with Rafael, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, and Radamel Falcao all carrying slight problems.
The players who defined the duels of the late 1990s and early 2000s have long since gone. Arsenal’s imperious, mammoth-striding French midfielder Patrick Vieira and United’s relentlessly driven Irish counterpart Roy Keane have arguably never been fully replaced by their respective clubs. There is a strong argument, too, that neither team has ever been as good as when they were pushing each other to extraordinary heights.
“There is not the same kind of excitement,” Vieira said last year of the matches between the sides now. “They are almost too nice to each other,” Keane added when brought face-to-face with his old sparring partner for a television special. “There is almost too much respect for each other.”
Present circumstances dictate that there won’t be the same significance riding on their latest clash on Saturday, nor will there be close to the same animosity on display. Yet the sheer size of the two clubs continues to ensure it retains much of its luster, with both teams now desperate for a win that could act as a springboard to return them to former glories.
Kickoff time: 12.30 p.m. EST
TV channel: NBC
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra