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Manchester United vs Arsenal is a sad shadow of a fierce rivalry

This used to be a fixture of snarl, spite and skill; this Sunday, it will be two teams competing to see which can be slightly less Arsenal than the other one.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Remember things? Used to be great, didn't they? Not what they once were, are they? Odd, isn't it, how the world seems to be trapped in a permanent cycle of decline, one that advances in lockstep with your own trudge towards the end of days? It's almost as though things aren't getting worse all the time, and nostalgia is just the externalised cry of a decaying soul, trapped inside a crumbling meatpuppet, looking out at the world through darkening eyes.

That said, Manchester United against Arsenal really isn't what it used to be.

On Sunday, the nation will fail to come to a juddering standstill for the least important staging of the fixture in recent times. Yes, United could do with a win, as there's a potentially tricky Champions League playoff waiting for whoever finishes in fourth. And yes, Arsenal would quite like a win, because those ludicrous fires of perpetual optimism won't stoke themselves. But really: the league is over, United never looked like winning it, and Arsenal cleverly timed their title charge to come after Chelsea had already sorted things out.

Which is all a great shame. Not just because a title decider at Old Trafford would have gone down very nicely, thank you very much, but because Arsenal against United used to be brilliant. Occasionally outstanding football laced with frequently outstanding needle.

Alex Ferguson's first game against Arsenal, in January 1987, had been plenty fractious: Arsenal's David Rocastle was dismissed, and walked off the pitch straight into a row with Ferguson and his assistant Archie Knox. But historians generally identify the fifth round of the 1988 FA Cup as the Gavrilo Princip-Franz Ferdinand moment, when Brian McClair missed an equalising penalty and Nigel Winterburn, one of life's poets, shot him whispered into his ear: "You're shit, you are".

There's more on that game here, but the tanks rolling into Belgium came in 1990. Upon being presented with a prone Winterburn, McClair helped himself to some pleasantly-chilled vengeance, and in no time at all 21 of the 22 players, along with most of the coaching staff from both benches, were a-pushing and a-shoving and a-you-want-some-ing away. Both clubs were fined and points were docked: two from Arsenal, one from United.

The arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996, and Arsenal's title win in 1997-98, kicked things up a gear. On the pitch, United and Arsenal exchanged fouls and red cards; off it, the managers exchanged barbs and snide. And while United won more titles, Wenger certainly takes the prize for the best put down. Luxuriating in his 2002 title win, and enjoying Ferguson's impotent claims to have played the better football, Wenger slipped in as elegant a verbal stiletto as English football has ever seen. "Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home." (More on that line over on the Guardian.)

There were, we should probably remember, some pretty decent games of football as well. Of the close-run things, there was Wenger's first win over United: a thriller at Highbury that saw Arsenal open up a two goal lead, Teddy Sheringham peg them back to parity, and then David Platt nick it at the death (he didn't indulge a in a muted celebration; some of the crowd did indulge in a spot of coin-throwing). After that, United didn't beat Arsenal for five further games, until a certain FA Cup semi-final replay in 1999.

On went the rivalry. United won three titles in a row; Arsenal came second each time. Then Arsenal nicked the trophy back — United ended up finishing in third ten points back — and had the cheek to win the thing at Old Trafford, Sylvain Wiltord scoring the only goal of the game. Thierry Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy scored goal after goal; Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira snarled at one another. United reclaimed the title in 2002-03. And then came the Invincibles, the missed penalty, and Martin Keown making a spectacle of himself.

Look at it. Look at them. Grown adults. It's magnificent stuff, even if United were on the wrong end of it this time. But looking back, it was probably the pinnacle. United extracted their revenge the following season, ending Arsenal's unbeaten league run at 49. Rumours have circulated ever since that Arsenal were wearing '50 not out' t-shirts under their kits, and while that's never been confirmed, everybody seems to agree that Cesc Fabregas threw something at Alex Ferguson afterwards. Pizza, perhaps. Or coffee. Maybe soup.

That same season saw the glorious, hilarious 4-2 at Highbury and the 0-0 battering that was the FA Cup final. Since then, though, the malice and the mischief has drained from the fixture. So what happened? Events, dear readers, events.

Vieira left Arsenal after the 2005 FA Cup final; Keane left United the following November. Neither club has managed to replace their stature in midfield, and neither club has really tried: United now look to the elbows of Marouane Fellaini for their fear factor, while Arsenal consist of ten nice, polite young men, and the ludicrous caricature that is Jack Wilshere.

That 2005 final also marked the end of a Premier League era: that summer, just down the road, Roman Abramovich invited Jose Mourinho to come and have some fun in England. A year later, Arsenal moved to the Emirates stadium, looked at their mortgage payments, and settled into the holding pattern of promising a title bid at the beginning fo the season, then accepting Champions League qualification at the end.

On the pitch, meanwhile, Alex Ferguson essentially worked Arsenal out. United lost home and away to the north Londoners in 2006-07, but since then United have lost just three of the last 20, a sequence that included Nani's ball-juggling, a Champions League quarter-final, and the wonder and horror of the 8-2. A rivalry has to be two-sided, otherwise it's basically bullying.

Ferguson is gone now, and Wenger is approaching the end of his Arsenal tenure. Keane and Vieira make television programmes together. Two markedly more polite teams will take to the field on Sunday: the football will be acceptable, and the game will probably be close, and the whole business will drip with meaninglessness. And Danny Welbeck and Robin van Persie may not even play, robbing us even of a few paltry crumbs of n*rrative.

Time was that this game would have been the biggest of the season no matter the situation; now, it's just two teams who don't particularly mind one another, both desperate to secure their European places get onto the next campaign. It's essentially a fight to discover which team gets to be slightly less Arsenal than the other one. For Keane and Vieira, read Coquelin and Blind; for Winterburn and McClair, read Angel di Maria tugging the referee's shirt. For pizza, read handshakes. How far we done fell.