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Premier League flashback - 2002-03 review: Red Devils fight back to bury Arsenal's challenge

The Premier League is 20 years old and has enjoyed plenty of highlights. Here, Total Football continues its look back at some of the highs and lows.

In 2002-03, it turned into another classic title battle between the two most consistent challengers in Premier League history.

Arsenal did move eight points clear at the beginning of March but the Premier League title slipped from the Gunners grasp and Manchester United fought back to take their eighth championship in 11 seasons, sealed on the penultimate weekend by Arsenal’s home defeat to Leeds United.

West Ham United went down, despite amassing over 40 points. West Brom and Sunderland also were relegated, with the Black Cats setting a new record at the time, for lack of point productivity.

CHAMPIONS: Manchester United

RUNNERS-UP: Arsenal

THIRD PLACE: Newcastle United

RELEGATED: West Ham United, West Brom, Sunderland

TOP SCORERS: Ruud Van Nistlerooy (Manchester United) 25, Thierry Henry (Arsenal) 24, James Beattie (Southampton) 23, Marc Viduka (Leeds United) 20, Michael Owen (Liverpool) 19, Alan Shearer (Newcastle United) 17, Paul Scholes (Manchester United) 14, Robert Pires (Arsenal) 14, Gianfranco Zola (Chelsea) 14, Nicolas Anelka (Manchester City) 14, Robbie Keane (Tottenham Hotspur) 14, Harry Kewell (Leeds United) 14

BIGGEST WIN: West Brom 0-6 Liverpool (26 April 2003)

HIGHEST SCORING GAMES: Manchester United 5-3 Newcastle United (23 November 2002), Newcastle United 2-6 Manchester United (12 April 2003), West Ham United 3-4 Leeds United (10 November 2002)

PFA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thierry Henry (Arsenal)

PFA YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jermaine Jenas (Newcastle United)

Arsenal had ended up as double winners at the end of the previous season but they lost the main Premier League prize in 2002-03, despite playing the most attractive football around.

Manchester United took their eighth title in 11 years, after a phenomenal run of form that saw them unbeaten from Boxing Day, all the way through until the end of the season.

The British transfer record was broken again in the summer, with Rio Ferdinand (pictured with Ryan Giggs and Mikael Silvestre) moving for £30m from Leeds to Manchester United.

Living the dream wasn’t working at Elland Road and with Robbie Keane being sold to Tottenham before the end of August, it was clear that the Yorkshire side were in big trouble.

With the club over £60m in debt, Terry Venables replaced the sacked David O’Leary and had walked into the poisoned chalice hotseat of all in the top flight.

Fulham also were changing but that was grounds. Refurbishment was required at Craven Cottage, meaning the Cottagers had to ground share at Loftus Road with QPR.

Other big transfers saw Nicolas Anelka return to the Premier League full-time with Manchester City, in a £13m deal. Kevin Keegan also persuaded veteran goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel to Eastlands.

Liverpool continued to build for the future, as Gerard Houllier signed two of the Senegalese stars from the World Cup, in Salif Diao and El-Hadji Diouf. Bruno Cheyrou also arrived at Anfield.

Champions Arsenal added Brazilian World Cup winner Gilberto to their ranks for £4.5m and paid Lille £5.5m for French defender, Pascal Cygan.

George Boateng moved from Aston Villa to Middlesbrough, Hugo Viana joined Newcastle from Sporting Lisbon, whilst Kenny Cunningham, Robbie Savage and Clinton Morrison all signed on with Premier League newcomers, Birmingham City.

Business as usual for the Gunners

The defending champions began the season in blistering form, scoring freely and winning games at a stroll.

Birmingham City were beaten 2-0 at Highbury on the opening weekend, West Brom ended up on the backend of a 5-2 drubbing and an all-time record of scoring in 47 consecutive top division matches was set, following a 4-1 win at Leeds United at the end of September.

Liverpool threw away early season advantages against Birmingham and Newcastle United at home. In both games, the Reds were 2-0 up but got pegged back to 2-2 draws.

Michael Owen started the season very sluggishly but he scored the first hat-trick of the Premier League campaign, as Liverpool got into their stride to win 3-0 at Manchester City.

Manchester United made a very rocky start though. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the sole goal of a narrow 1-0 triumph over newly promoted West Brom on the first day.

They then went onto experience another shock home defeat to Bolton on September 11, courtesy of a Kevin Nolan goal, before Harry Kewell’s header at Elland Road sank the Red Devils on Rio Ferdinand’s first return to Yorkshire, since his summer move.

Eight points from their first six matches left Manchester United in midtable but they didn’t suffer any goalkeeping catastrophes, which is what happened down at Aston Villa.

Villa travelled to Birmingham for the second city derby at St. Andrews on 16 September, their first top flight derby in 17 years.

Trailing 1-0 to a Clinton Morrison goal, it got worse with 13 minutes remaining. Olof Mellberg threw the ball back to Peter Enckleman, who failed to control a simple backpass and the ball trickled embarrassingly into the net.

The Birmingham fans couldn’t believe it, some of them taunting Enckleman on the pitch which led to their lifetime bans from the ground. Geoff Horsfield sealed the result on a great night for the Blues.

Introducing Wayne Rooney

On the first weekend, Everton introduced a youngster by the name of Wayne Rooney.

He was slowly making his name but exploded into the football world in mid-October. Aged 16 years and 360 days old, Rooney curled a 30-year strike into the back of David Seaman’s net to seal a famous 2-1 win over Arsenal for the Toffees.

The strike not only set Everton on a run of six consecutive victories but it ended Arsenal’s 30 match unbeaten run and announced his arrival on the football stage.

Arsenal went onto lose the following weekend too, 2-1 at home to Blackburn Rovers, which allowed Liverpool to move into top spot by the beginning of November, with the Merseysiders still unbeaten and on a run of seven straight wins.

The first managerial casualty of the season came at Sunderland, as Peter Reid was sacked after more than seven years in charge in October.

The FA’s technical director Howard Wilkinson was the surprise choice and he did steer the Black Cats to an excellent 2-0 home win over inconsistent Tottenham in November but their season didn’t get much better after that.

Manchester City made a slack start and languished in the bottom three at the end of October but in November, their season took a turn in the right direction and it was an emotional success too.

In the last ever Manchester derby at Maine Road, City beat Manchester United 3-1, with Shaun Goater scoring a double to bring up his century of goals for the club. It was City’s first derby win since 1989 and it wouldn’t be their last in the years to come.

Arsenal recovered from their mini blip to beat Tottenham 3-0 in the North London derby, with Thierry Henry scoring an amazing solo goal. He collected the ball from inside his own half, ran the full length of the Highbury pitch before shooting past Kasey Keller with his left foot.

This solo strike won the Premier League Goal of the Season, as voted by viewers of ITV.

Dudek catastrophe

Sir Alex Ferguson rallied his troops after the derby defeat and they charged back into the title battle with some valuable wins.

First, they thrashed Newcastle United 5-3 at Old Trafford, with Ruud Van Nistlerooy scoring a hat-trick, although a trademark Alan Shearer free kick did mean he was the first striker to score 100 Premier League goals for two different clubs.

The following weekend, United were gifted victory at Liverpool by error-strewn Polish goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek.

With an hour gone, he fumbled a header back from Jamie Carragher and Diego Forlan couldn’t believe his luck, as the Uruguayan tapped the ball into an unguarded net. A second followed five minutes later as United won 2-1, to end a run of five successive defeats against the old enemy.

Then, the Red Devils beat a lacklustre Arsenal 2-0 at Old Trafford, thanks to goals from Juan Sebastian Veron and Paul Scholes. It was the first time that the North Londoners had failed to find the net in 56 games.

Liverpool’s early season form melted away. A shock 2-1 defeat to Sunderland highlighted a complete collapse as their title challenge crashed and froze. They went on a horrible run of 11 games without a win, slipping from top in November to seventh place in mid-January.

It could have been worse, as West Ham United went into Christmas Day, in the poisoned position of bottom place in the table. Upto this point, no team bottom at Christmas had escaped relegation so the omens weren’t good for Glenn Roeder’s stars.

Wayne Rooney had a miserable Boxing Day, as he got the first red card of his professional career at St. Andrews for a reckless tackle on Birmingham’s Steve Vickers.

Then, he lost his record as the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer to Leeds’s James Milner, who netted in their 2-1 victory at Sunderland, aged 16 years and 357 days.

Arsenal went into the New Year with a five point lead over Chelsea, with Manchester United in third after back-to-back losses over the festive period at Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough.

The exodus continues at Leeds

Leeds’s financial decline continued in the new January transfer window.

Lee Bowyer joined West Ham United, Olivier Dacourt moved to AS Roma and before the month was out, Robbie Fowler had gone to Manchester City for £6m and Jonathan Woodgate made a £9m switch to Newcastle United, against the wishes of Terry Venables.

In 16th spot and struggling on the field too, Chairman Peter Ridsdale admitted his mistakes and eventually resigned whilst a dejected Venables was relieved of his duties too, before the season was out.

Other big January moves included Middlesbrough’s triple signing of Malcolm Christie, Chris Riggott and Michael Ricketts, whilst French World Cup winner Christophe Dugarry signed for Birmingham City on loan from Bordeaux and goalkeeper Mart Poom swapped Derby County for Sunderland.

Thierry Henry was still in explosive form, chalking up his 100th goal for Arsenal in January and scored another hat-trick in the Gunners 3-1 win against West Ham United.

Henry’s form won him the PFA Players Player of the Year award, although he missed out on the Golden Boot by one goal, to Manchester United hotshot Van Nistlerooy.

Liverpool’s worst league run for almost 50 years ended in January, as Emile Heskey’s header on a wet Saturday evening earnt them victory over Southampton at St. Mary’s.

Charlton Athletic had a great run of form, as they only lost one of 15 games between mid-November and February. The defeat came at Chelsea, losing 4-1 on Stamford Bridge’s ‘beach pitch.’

Charlton appealed to the FA for the game to be replayed but it was rejected. A few weeks later, the Addicks were involved in another strange game at hapless Sunderland.

Inside 31 minutes, they were 3-0 up at the Stadium of Light, courtesy of three own goals from the hosts! Stephen Wright scored one and the unlucky Michael Proctor found the wrong end twice. The sight of Sunderland fans leaving early was becoming a familiar sight.

Eight point lead squandered

With Manchester United on Worthington Cup final duty, Arsenal defeated Charlton on 1 March 2-0, to build a useful eight point lead.

Within a month, that advantage had been squandered, thanks to some deadly form from their rivals and their own jittery patch.

The Gunners lost 2-0 at Blackburn, crashed out of the Champions League at the second group phase, then drew 1-1 at struggling Aston Villa, thanks to a Kolo Toure own goal.

Ferguson’s men hit top form, as Fulham were swept aside 3-0 at Old Trafford. Van Nistlerooy scored all three, copying Henry’s solo effort earlier in the season with a mesmerising run and finish for his second.

United then went onto record their biggest win over Liverpool in 50 years, winning 4-0 in April although Sami Hyypia’s fourth minute red card didn’t help the visitors cause.

Newcastle United’s faint title challenge ended the following Saturday, as the Red Devils destroyed them 6-2 at St. James Park, with Paul Scholes scoring a hat-trick.

At the wrong end of the table, Mick McCarthy replaced Howard Wilkinson at Sunderland in March but failed to collect any points in his 11 games in charge, as the Wearsiders went down on 12 April, 2-0 at Birmingham.

They scored the fewest goals, collected a mere four victories and only picked up 19 points, the worst record for a Premier League side at the time.

Peter Reid returned to the dugout with Leeds United on a caretaker basis and Marc Viduka would go onto score 20 goals in the league. A hat-trick in a surprising 6-1 walloping of Charlton in April eased their relegation worries.

West Brom also went down in April, despite a 2-1 success at Sunderland. Gary Megson’s team managed just six victories and then got thumped for six by a rampant Liverpool at The Hawthorns.

Face off at Highbury

The crunch game in the title battle came on 16 April, as Manchester United visited Highbury to play Arsenal. They held a three point lead, although the North Londoners had a game in hand.

Van Nistlerooy scored in the first half, before the pendulum swung back in Arsenal’s favour, with a double from Henry in the early moments of the second half. An unmarked Ryan Giggs made it 2-2 before the most controversial moment of the season.

With seven minutes left, Sol Campbell caught Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with his elbow. Some angles saw the incident looked accidental; others saw it as a deliberate attempt to hurt his rival.

Mark Halsey sent Campbell off and although it finished honours even on the night, the momentum was firmly with the Red Devils.

They went onto beat Blackburn 3-1, Tottenham away 2-0 and Charlton at home 4-1 with little trouble. Van Nistlerooy scored another five goals in these three games.

Injuries and a lack of concentration cost Arsenal at the Reebok Stadium against relegation threatened Bolton Wanderers in late April.

Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires put the visitors 2-0 up but Lauren, Campbell and Gilberto all limped off injured and thanks to Youri Djorkaeff and a Martin Keown own goal, the game ended 2-2.

Victory was paramount at home to Leeds United to keep Arsenal’s title charge going. It didn’t start well when Harry Kewell fired Reid’s side ahead on five minutes with a scorching strike.

Henry equalised to make it 1-1 at half-time but Ian Harte scored another free kick at Highbury, before Dennis Bergkamp drew Arsenal level again.

Henry hit the post, before Marc Viduka buried the Gunners championship hopes, by striking the late goal with three minutes left that maintained Leeds Premier League status. Not only that, it handed the Premier League trophy to Manchester United for the eighth time in 11 years.

Final day drama

On 21 April, West Ham manager Glenn Roeder collapsed with a brain tumour, following his side’s vital 1-0 win over Middlesbrough at Upton Park.

Hammers legend Trevor Brooking took control for the final three games and steered the club to priceless 1-0 wins away at Manchester City and at home to Chelsea.

They were still in the bottom three going into the final day, locked in a battle to survive with Bolton Wanderers.

Bolton played Middlesbrough at home and goals in the first 20 minutes from Per Frandsen and their Nigerian wizard, Jay-Jay Okocha had them in a comfortable position.

Michael Ricketts scored his first Boro goal in the second half on his first return to the Reebok but a late red card for Franck Queudrue extinguished a late fightback from Steve McClaren’s side.

The 2-1 success for Bolton kept them up and sent West Ham down, regardless of their result at Birmingham. The 2-2 draw at St. Andrews was academic, which meant they became the first team ever to go down with more than 40 points.

In the other main issue on the final day, Chelsea came from behind to beat Liverpool 2-1 in the £20m match and claim England’s fourth and final Champions League qualification place.

Gianfranco Zola said goodbye on a high and few could have predicted what was going to happen in the upcoming summer to the West Londoners.

Also, Manchester City said farewell to Maine Road with a 1-0 home defeat to Southampton, as they moved into the City of Manchester Stadium built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, for the following season.

City moved homes but it was Manchester United who kept winning the prizes in 2002-03. Arsenal’s response to this cruel disappointment would be interesting to watch.

By Simon Wright – Follow me on Twitter @Siwri88

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