One part of me says that although we were well and truly outplayed, we’re only 1-0 down and it’s a deficit that we are more than capable of overturning in the home leg. We may have conceded a sloppy goal but we also got the sort of luck that often decides these sort of ties when Cristiano Ronaldo’s second-half shot crashed off the bar. It leaves us only needing to win 1-0 to level the tie, while a 2-0 win – a result we would have achieved at The Emirates earlier in the season had it not been for Rafael’s late consolation – would put us through.
However, the other part of me says that things look pretty dire. As an attacking force we were as blunt as we’ve been all season while Manchester United forced Manuel Almunia into no less than seven saves not including the goal. Should they manage another at The Emirates then we will need to score three and although it’s sure to be a different game, I’m not overly confident we can achieve it.
In terms of our performance, personally I don’t think we were as horrible as a lot of people have made. Aside from the opening 20 minutes when United ran us ragged, our defensive effort was quite solid. The back four functioned reasonably well as a unit while the midfield five worked hard to provide them the protection they needed. Indeed, if you had told me before last night that United would only score one goal, I probably would have taken it.
I mentioned before the game that the key to getting a good result was hard work. And while I don’t think you can fault our defensive efforts our work-rate in attack left a lot to be desired. Emmanuel Adebayor looked like he’d taken a couple of valium before the game while Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas rarely took the opportunity to push forward to provide him with support. I didn’t mind the tactic to play patient keep-ball at times without looking to penetrate the penalty area – it took a lot of pressure of the defence – but our inability to get even two or three men forward when we had opportunities to hit them hard on the break was disappointing.
Arsene Wenger has said that we can expect to see a different Arsenal in a week’s time and I sincerely hope he’s right. To me the experiment to play Fabregas behind Adebayor didn’t work tonight for a number of reasons and it wouldn’t surprise me to see us revert to 4-4-2 with goals a high priority. Robin van Persie could well return while Eduardo or Nicklas Bendtner may get a start if the Dutchman does not recover from his thigh problem quickly enough. It would mean that Fabregas would play deeper and Nasri would switch left, a decision that looks inevitable given Diaby’s really poor performance last night.
I guess the final thing to remember coming out of this game is that it’s only half-time. Manchester United might have the lead but it’s not over yet. The manager has a week to consider his options before sending out a team he thinks can make up the deficit in front of our home supporters. The Chelsea-Liverpool quarter-final second-leg showed us that however improbable scores like 3-1 or 4-2 look on paper, they are still a distinct possibility.
United were certainly the stronger side tonight and they definitely the lead, but home advantage and the knowledge that we can play at a much higher level means things are delicately poised.
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