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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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1997/98 - Season Review

From one Frenchman dominating the Premiership to another. With Eric Cantona bidding adieu to Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger stepped in to alter the balance of Premiership power.

Manchester United had turned to England veteran Teddy Sheringham to replace their former No 7 and though the first half of the season saw the Londoner shine in a strike force in which he, Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored freely, by the turn of the year, Sheringham and United stalled - their apex reached with a 5-3 win at Chelsea in the FA Cup 3rd Round.

Soon after, on the 40th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, Sheringham blamed Andy Cole for Bolton's equaliser in a drab 1-1 draw and the two would rarely exchange a word thereafter.

United too, were derailed by the loss of Roy Keane, their new captain. A moment of madness at Leeds, where he swung a leg at Alf Inge Haaland, had snapped his cruciate ligaments in September and though the cherubic midfield partnership of Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt played some superb football, the arrival of 1998 spelled tired legs and a threadbare squad.

Alex Ferguson was forced to field teams shorn of Cantona, Keane, Gary Pallister (the defender's dodgy back now a constant worry), Ryan Giggs (whose hamstring gave way when in full flow against Derby in February) and Peter Schmeichel, who damaged a calf in a vain last effort for an equaliser in what proved to be the title race's defining moment - Arsenal's 1-0 win at Old Trafford in mid-March.

But depicting the title race as United throwing it away would be remiss - Arsenal topped the division after 10 consecutive wins and were out of reach for the last two games of the season despite being beaten by Aston Villa and Everton.

Wenger built his team around the fabled defence bequeathed to him from the George Graham era and married it to a midfield pairing of Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, whose styles complemented each other perfectly. And in their attacking arsenal, Arsenal could call on Dennis Bergkamp to provide the bullets for 19-year-old Nicolas Anelka, poached from PSG for a song, and a more than adequate replacement for Ian Wright, for whom injuries curtailed his final season at Highbury.

Wright had begun the season in typical style and had eclipsed Cliff Bastin's club record of 178 goals but took a back seat as injuries ruled him out of the run-in and the subsequent World Cup in the summer.

United were the front-runners throughout the season after overhauling Blackburn in September, and by the beginning of February were 12 points clear, though the Gunners had two games in hand. They would make the most of them, going on a winning run that took in Marc Overmars' winner at Old Trafford and peaked with a 2-0 home win over Everton. Tony Adams supplied the coup de grace with a thrashing goal and collected the trophy at a sun-drenched Highbury.

Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole: United pair not the best of friends as their title challenge stalls.
Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole: United pair not the best of friends as their title challenge stalls.

As would happen for the next few years, the following pack were left in the wake of the North Londoners and Mancunians. Liverpool finished a distant third but a star was born. Michael Owen's fearless free-running and deadly finished led them to forget the injury problems suffered by Robbie Fowler. The 18-year-old scored 23 goals and became the youngest ever England international. His Young Player of the Year award was as runaway as one of his trademark goals.

Chelsea, in fourth, suffered a rollercoaster season as they briefly challenged at the top of the table at the turn of the year. Ruud Gullit's bunch of ageing foreigners playing 'sexy football' lacked the legs and, after Gullit fell out with Ken Bates over his wages after becoming manager rather than player-manager, they lost their Dutch boss too.

Gianluca Vialli, the Italian striker who'd endured an unhappy relationship with Gullit, was promoted into the player-boss role and became an instant hit. The Coca Cola Cup was lifted as First Division Middlesbrough, featuring Paul Gascoigne on his return from exile, were beaten 2-0 at Wembley. The European Cup Winners' Cup was also won - a Gianfranco Zola blockbuster in Stockholm saw off Stuttgart to mark a double success for Luca in his maiden months as a boss.

The FA Cup was another trophy to go to London. And it was to form part of Arsenal's second double as Wenger's side progressed past Port Vale, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Wolves, with replays needed from their London neighbours and Bryan Robson's Boro.

Their opponents in the final were Newcastle, led by Kenny Dalglish and featuring Alan Shearer, who had amazingly escaped FA censure for what looked like a clear kick on Leicester's Neil Lennon face a couple of weeks before. Shearer's luck ran out as goals from Overmars and Anelka marked a serene stroll to twin success for the Gunners.

Manchester United's season ended potless. Their European Cup dream was ended by a David Trezeguet goal as Monaco won on away goals in the quarter-finals. The FA Cup was even more embarassing as Barnsley, who had struggled all season at the bottom of the Premiership, beat them in a replay as Ferguson fielded a reserve line-up.

Barnsley's season in the sun ended there as they struggled in vain all year to beat the drop. A historic win at Anfield was mirrored by a shameful day at Oakwell when several fans attacked a referee as Liverpool won 3-2 in March. Danny Wilson's side were woefully short of the quality required from the top division.

But Barnsley were not bottom. They finished above the circus that was Crystal Palace - who lost boss Steve Coppell and replaced him with a truly bizarre double act of Italian Attilio Lombardo and as his interpreter, the bulky Tomas Brolin. The comedy duo did little to save Palace and they finished seven points from safety.

Teenage riot: Michael Owen plundered 23 goals as Liverpool finished a distant third place.
Teenage riot: Michael Owen plundered 23 goals as Liverpool finished a distant third place.

The battle for 17th was harder fought however. Everton looked to be lurching towards their first relegation in forty years after that defeat to Arsenal but they were saved by a goal by Gareth Farrelly against Coventry to get them a draw while Bolton, who began the day ahead of them, lost.

The Trotters' demotion led to all three previously promoted sides being relegated - a sign of the ever growing sense of 'have and have nots'. Their demise saved the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, rescued by a Ron Atkinson 'Red Adair' job, Wimbledon and Tottenham, under the hapless Christian Gross and rescued from demotion by a returning Jurgen Klinsmann.

Meanwhile, neighbours Arsenal were toasting their best team in a generation and had become only the third ever winners of the Premiership.