It was with the promise of matches like this that Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, persuaded broadcasters to dig into their coffers from Timbuktu to Tokyo. However, the build-up to yesterday's game had not been as low-key for a decade. The soap opera of Chelsea's internal combustion saw to that.
Jose Mourinho and his club have been headline-makers for a couple of seasons, not least because they are back-to-back champions, knocking this match from top billing. Indeed, Chelsea remain the prime threat to Manchester United's prospects of regaining the title after this result and the champions' defeat to Liverpool on Saturday. Nevertheless, there was a sense, in the wake of events at Anfield, that spectators at the Emirates Stadium were not so much revisiting the past as opening a window into the future.
Possible consequences of Chelsea's current problemsinclude Mourinho being replaced by a less able coach, and/or Roman Abramovich losing his enthusiasm. Either scenario would result in Chelsea returning to the ranks. Then, though Liverpool cannot be discounted, Sky's publicity machine would be proclaiming: "Wenger v Ferguson: The giants return".
From a footballing perspective this may be no bad thing. When Abramovich's investment enabled Chelsea to muscle in on the big two the advent of a new face was like a gust of fresh air. The odour has long since turned fetid. Even without the charmless nature of Chelsea's management it would be hard to love their football. It has been, until John Terry's injury, extremely efficient. But it lacks the commitment to attack, and sense of joy, apparent in Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson's teams.
In much of the Premiership victory is still pursued by humping long balls forward, and defended by hacking into an increasingly empty row Z.
Yesterday the ball was nearly always played out from the back, worked across midfield or down the wings, then manoeuvred around the box. It was join-the-dots football, with every outfielder confident on the ball and expected to play a part.
United lost a chance to open a nine-point lead but Ferguson will not change his approach now. Nor Wenger. More pertinent, perhaps, is whether Mourinho will? And whether he will be allowed to?
The best football teams are in a state of constant evolution. Even when they have apparently reached a state of perfection, as with Wenger's Invincibles or Ferguson's treble-winners, the manager has to be looking two steps ahead. If age does not weary footballers, success may make them complacent. Mourinho may have encountered that in both dressing-room and boardroom.
Being eclipsed has made these teams hungry again and while much of this match suggested that United were further down the developmental path Arsenal's comeback underlined their own progress. Their team are young, especially in defence, but their results against Chelsea, Liverpool and United confirm their potential. Even without the experience of William Gallas and Gilberto Silva they found a way to win.
Yet while Ferguson turned away in disgust and disbelief at Henry's winning goal he, too, had seen enough to confirm his team are also resurgent.
As for the watching millions, such drama ensured that they will be tuning in, from Tashkent to Tierra del Fuego, for the next instalment.Reuse content