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Manchester United’s greatest rivalries of all time

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We rank Manchester United’s top 5 rivalries

Soccer - AXA FA Cup - Fifth Round - Manchester United v Arsenal Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

5. Leeds United

Soccer - Football League Division One - Manchester United v Leeds United Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

This rivalry might not mean much to the presentists, but it was once a major battle in the North of England for the many of the top prizes. Leeds United were a major power in English football for much of the post-war 20th century, and their geographical closeness to United meant that the two clubs often met throughout their history.

In the 1960s Manchester United recovered from the tragedy of Munich, and went back to their winning ways at the expense of their rivals. However, as United began their decline, Leeds began their rise. They earned promotion to the First Division in 1964, and were champions just 5 years later in the 1968/69 season. They would win the league again in 1973/74 as United’s post-Busby collapse reached its lowest of lows, and also won the League Cup in 1968 and FA Cup in 1972.

Both clubs struggled to reach their former heights in the 1980s, though Manchester United won the FA Cup 3 times between Busby and Ferguson. A fierce rivalry in the 1990s was sparked in 1991/92 as the clubs challenged for the First Division title. Leeds won out, but United returned the next year in style by taking the first ever Premier League title, spurred on by one Eric Cantona, who left Elland Road for greener fields of Old Trafford just before Christmas of that season. Le Roi became a legend as United won 4 titles in 5 seasons, including 2 League and FA Cup doubles.

As Leeds watched their rivals win the lot, they invested an enormous amount of money into building a squad that could win the greatest prize of all, the UEFA Champions League. They got close — to the Semi-Finals in fact — but the ultimate prize eluded them, as did stability. Their investment left the club struggling financially, and they were forced to sell most of their players just to stay afloat, including striker/central midfielder (eye roll) Alan Smith and centre back Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United. They were ultimately relegated at the end of the 2003/04 season, and haven’t been back since. There’s been a bit of a pause in the rivalry since, but rest assured it will be reignited in 2020/21 when Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds finally return to the top flight.

4. Chelsea

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Final - Manchester United v Chelsea - Luzhniki Stadium Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC Via Getty Images

Some might argue that this rivalry should be a spot higher, but just because it’s at 4 does not discredit the incredible battles between these two sides. Chelsea are often seen as a financially doped up club, but their place in Premier League history is firmly secure after nearly two decades challenging for silverware and league titles.

Even before Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003, Chelsea were a force to be reckoned with. They had several fierce encounters with Manchester United in the 1990s, and began turning Stamford Bridge into a home fortress. They won the FA Cup in 1997 and 2000, and the League Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998, which helped to cement their place near the top in English football. Once the money began rolling in they spent prolifically to add to their talent, but the arrival of José Mourinho in 2004 was the landmark move that took them to the summit for the first time in over 50 years. The Special One unseated Sir Alex’s Red Devils and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal with no hesitation, and caused a seismic shift in English football.

From 2004-2011 either Manchester United or Chelsea won every Premier League title, as well as splitting several cups, and the two clubs even met in the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final in Moscow. United edged the Blues on penalties in one of the most hotly contested and dramatic finals in the history of the competition.

Chelsea won a Champions League of their own in 2012, which served to validate their status as one of the most powerful teams in world football, and capping off the era of John Terry, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba with the biggest prize in club football. They’ve won the Premier League twice in the years since Sir Alex’s retirement, and though they’ve been very up and very down in that time they remain a fierce top 4 competitor for United, and every meeting still carries weight to it.

3. Arsenal

Ryan Giggs of Manchester United

For a period there was only United and Arsenal. There wasn’t a ton of history between the two traditional powers, though they’d met on the biggest stages before, but meetings at the summit between the two developed a very raw, (but respectful) hatred that defined the English game from 1997-2004.

Arsene Wenger may have just been a relative unknown from Monaco and Osaka when he arrived in London in 1996, but his football philosophy and remarkable eye for talent helped to catapult Arsenal back to the top of the game, and pose the greatest challenge to Sir Alex Ferguson’s supremacy. Their Premier League and FA Cup double win in 1997/98 shocked the country, and they nearly did it again the next season. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as United beat them to the title on the last day of the season, and knocked them out of the FA Cup in an instant classic semi-final replay. Wenger would have to regroup if he wanted to challenge them again.

And that’s exactly what he did. Despite United winning 3 Premier League titles in a row from 1999-2001, a young winger turned striker by the name of Thierry Henry led a rejuvenated Arsenal back to another double in 2001/02, FA Cup in 2003, and to an historic undefeated 2003/04 title winning campaign. United had won the league in 2002/03 and FA Cup in 03/04, but felt the fatigue of battle with a very worthy opponent. However, the emergence of Chelsea in 2004/05 knocked both clubs back a step. It was something that Sir Alex and United would bounce back from, but not Arsenal.

Though Wenger continued to challenge for titles occasionally, his Arsenal sides would never find the same edge that made them champions, and worthy rivals of United. United would go on to win another bundle of league titles, cups, and the UEFA Champions League — the top prize of Europe that always eluded Wenger and Arsenal.

That period where the two giant clubs traded blows is widely regarded as the greatest rivalry in Premier League history, and certainly has yet to be matched for sustained intensity.

2. Manchester City

Manchester United’s English striker Wayn Photo credit should read ANDREW YATES/AFP via Getty Images

There isn’t much in sport that comes close to playing your local rival. For most of their history it hasn’t been much of a match for Manchester United, but the Manchester Derby has grown beyond its geographical restrictions to become one of the most anticipated rivalry matches in all of sport.

Manchester City have had several ups and downs throughout their history. Despite winning 2 league titles and a handful of cup competitions in the 20th century, City spent quite a bit of time falling and jumping between the top two tiers of the English league. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that City regained Premier League status and stabilized. Then a massive takeover in 2008 pumped a ridiculous amount of cash into the squad, and sparked a new era of success for the Citizens. Roberto Mancini’s side from 2010-13 won an FA Cup — defeating United in the semi-final — and beat Ferguson’s side to the title at the last second on the last day of the 2011/12 Premier League season. Superstar talents Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Yaya Toure helped propel the Noisy Neighbors to the summit of English football for the first time since 1968.

Sir Alex couldn’t let City have the last laugh, and won one last league title with the help of Robin Van Persie in 2012/13 before calling it a day on the game’s most remarkable managerial career. Since then, City have largely reigned supreme over United. They’ve won another 3 Premier League titles, including a record setting 100 pt campaign in 2017/18, in which Mourinho’s United stumbled mightily in the title chase and finished 19 points adrift of their rivals. Pep Guardiola’s success has exacerbated the current problems plaguing United in domestic competition, but City still have a long way to go if they’re to match the history of their Red neighbors. Their status as one of United’s top rivals may not have been so bold had it not been for their takeover 12 years ago, but the last decade of fierce Derby Days and title challenges has certainly solidified their spot as one of the United faithful’s most hated opponents.

1. Liverpool

Liverpool v Manchester United Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

One of the best rivalries in sport, and without a doubt the number one rival of Manchester United. Liverpool.

These two giants of English football have been the undisputed greats of the island since football resumed post-World War II. Busby, Shankly, Paisley, Ferguson. 4 of the biggest names in the history of the sport, and masterminds behind some of the most unforgettable teams to ever play.

Though United dominated in the 1950s and 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s belonged to Liverpool. In that time they transcended what most thought was possible in the English game, and set a record by winning 18 top flight titles. One Alex Ferguson however made it his mission to knock them off of their f***ing perch, though, and did just that. The 1990s and 2000s belonged to United, and Sir Alex successfully unseated Liverpool by winning 13 Premier League titles, pushing United’s top flight tally to 20. Still, despite fading somewhat, Liverpool remained an intensely competitive rival to United. Their European success remains the envy of all British teams, and the teams of the Spice Boys, Benitez, and Steven Gerrard always seemed on the verge of greatness. However, they never did achieve Premier League glory again until recently (as in, a week ago), while the United teams of veteran Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes backed a Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney-led era of greatness akin to the 90s and early noughts.

In recent years Jurgen Klopp has taken Liverpool back to the levels they’d reached over 30 years ago. It has been a hard pill for United fans to swallow, and a sobering reminder of just how fierce the rivalry between the two clubs is. A 0-0 draw last season contributed to Liverpool’s title collapse, and a 0-2 loss at Anfield this season helped cement Liverpool’s historic lead over their closest title challengers before winter had even passed. Each meeting carries the weight of the incredible respective histories of the two clubs, and with one or both usually near the top of the table it carries the weight of the moment as well.