Emmanuel Petit views beating Manchester United in 1998 as the most memorable match of his time at Arsenal – but he regrets the fact he didn’t go on to join Sir Alex Ferguson’s side three years later.
Petit joined Arsenal from Monaco in 1997 and went on to win a Premier League and FA Cup double in his first season in England – and Arsene Wenger’s first full campaign in charge.
The Gunners beat United 3-2 in a memorable encounter at Highbury in the first half of the season, but it was their 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March that Petit remembers most fondly, not just from that season but his entire three years in north London.
That win left Arsenal six points behind United but with three games in hand, and it proved to be the second of a remarkable 10-game winning streak as Wenger’s men clinched the title with two games to spare before beating Newcastle United in the FA Cup final.
“The game between Manchester United and Arsenal was so important in the 1998 title race,” Petit says.
“We came out of the Christmas period a long way behind United with a lot of games in hand because of difficult circumstances and we needed to have a lot of wins before we went into this game at Old Trafford.
“By the time we got there, we were in a position where we could see them in front of us. If we win this game, the title would be in our hands and Marc Overmars scored the goal that changed everything for us as we won 1-0.
“We had to keep winning after that match to get the title, but the momentum had changed and everything felt like it was going in our favour. We also won the FA Cup final that season and Arsene Wenger had announced his arrival in English football.
“People didn’t take him seriously at first, but then they saw the work he could do, which I knew about obviously from our time together at Monaco.
“He was amazing to my career. He was like a father figure to me at Monaco and it was amazing to come with him to Arsenal and achieve this success. I will never forget what he did for me.”
Despite his admiration for Wenger, Petit believes his compatriot ought to have left Arsenal before he did at the end of the 2017-18 season.
Asked if he was sad about the way it ended for Wenger, Petit says: “Not sad. This is life. History has a beginning and an end and after more than 20 years and if Arsene is honest, he knows that departure should have happened before that.
“He should have taken the decision to leave and the director had to force him to leave in the end. We didn’t need to see the day when he was asked to leave.
“But we should not forget what he did for the Premier League, for Arsenal and for so many players, including me. I still have great memories of my time with him.
“Even if we live in a time when people have short memories, people should not forget the impact he had on English football and the legacy will always be there.
“The Premier League titles, the FA Cups, the unbeaten season…they are amazing achievements for a club that is in a better place now than when he arrived.”
Petit formed a formidable partnership with Patrick Vieira at Highbury, made up of brain and brawn in equal measure, but the now-48-year-old believes that type of midfielder has disappeared from the game since he stopped playing.
“I look at the players I played with in my career and wow, they were amazing, but there were also so many fighters on the pitch,” he says.
“These guys who would give everything to win and you see less of these players now. These were big men on the pitch.
“Football has changed since I was playing. Tackling is not such a big part of the game now and that is changing the way we view the game.
“We can watch so many matches on TV now and how many times will you see a tackle that both guys come away with and say it was a good battle? Not often.
“We had guys like Roy Keane at Manchester United, Tim Sherwood at Tottenham, Patrick at Arsenal and they liked the battle. I would be prepared to have a battle as well, but maybe in a different way to those guys.”
Asked if he could be viewed as the silent partner to Vieira the enforcer, Petit adds: “I might be quiet, but I am ready for a battle at any moment if someone brings it to me.
“I won’t come to kick you from behind just to show I am the big man, but I will stand up for myself when the moment is right. If you try to do things to me on the pitch, I will come back at you.
“But I never looked for the spotlight. I was happy to get on with my job to do what I needed to do for the team and not to be the guy looking for the attention.
“As an example, if you can find a picture of me holding the World Cup in 1998, I give you £100. I didn’t need this kind of attention to justify why I was on the pitch, but others were more comfortable in this role.”
Petit left Arsenal for Barcelona in 2000 but spent only one season at the Nou Camp before returning to England with Chelsea.
The Frenchman says he actually had the opportunity to return to Arsenal, but it’s turning down Manchester United that he regrets now looking back.
“When I left Barcelona, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea were interested,” he says.
“Alex Ferguson called me, but I had a meal with Claudio Ranieri (Chelsea manager) and he charmed me. Chelsea was in London, a city I was happy in, I liked his ideas for Chelsea and I decided to go there.
“I regret not playing for United. I met Ferguson and he had an amazing team at the time. Scholes, Giggs, Keane…such a great team.
“I spoke to my wife at the time and in my heart, I wanted to go to United, but the decision was made to stay in London again. Maybe I could have made a different decision.”
Petit also gave his verdict on the festive football schedule in England, which sees several games played in a short period of time, adding: “At first it is difficult for the foreign players to get used to playing so many games at Christmas, but then you see the connection with the fans and the traditions of games at this time of the year and it is very special.
“I enjoyed these matches. Okay, there are too many played in a short space of time and the reality is that by the final games of Christmas, the players are so tired and they have nothing left in the tank.
“This is why the extra game played on December 29 or 30 is normally low quality, but this is the decision of the people who make up these rules.
“So many people in positions of power in football make stupid decisions that are more about money than the good of the game. We can all watch 20 games a week if we want, but do we need to?
“This is too much, but the drive to make money as quickly as possible means the best interests of the game are not always considered.”
Emmanuel Petit is a Paddy Power ambassador and you can read his views at news.paddypower.com
By Kevin Palmer