Manchester United 2 (Rooney 59 pen, Diaby 64 og)
Arsenal 1 (Arshavin 40)
Arsenal had two defensive errors to blame for an unfortunate 2-1 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford. With our boys in control and in the lead after Andrey Arshavin’s first-half cannonball, we self-destructed in spectacular style as first Manuel Almunia needlessly conceded a spot-kick and the Abou Diaby scored an own-goal under no pressure. It was enough to see us suffer defeat for the first time this season and the misery was compounded when Robin van Persie’s late equaliser was chalked off for offside and Arsene Wenger was comically and incorrectly sent to the stands by referee Mike Riley Dean.
Arsenal played an almost full-strength side at Old Trafford with Cesc Fabregas the notable exception, out with a hamstring strain. Alex Song returned to the starting team to form a midfield triangle along with Denilson and Abou Diaby while Emmanuel Eboue surprisingly got the nod ahead of Nicklas Bendtner on the right side of the attack. Otherwise it was the usual suspects with our first-choice defensive five and the classy attacking pair of Arshavin and van Persie completing the team.
As is the norm for games against Manchester United there was action a-plenty from the first whistle as Darren Fletcher fired an early shot over and van Persie had a very decent effort blocked by Patrice Evra. Our team settled better than United from then on as the midfield trio got control of the game, keeping the ball well and allowing Arshavin in particular to stamp his influence on the game.
The little Russian shot narrowly wide after a flap from United goalkeeper Ben Foster before he again took centre stage with two of the games biggest moments. First the Russian was clearly fouled in the box by Fletcher (who also handled the ball for good measure) but for whatever reason the referee waved play on. Admirably Arshavin popped straight back up after the appeal to collect the ball just seconds later and smash a superb shot from outside the area to give us the lead just before half-time.
It was so nearly 2-0 shortly after the break as Arshavin weaved some more magic down the left and van Persie somehow had his shot saved by the outstretched leg of Foster. It was a really brilliant save, possibly the best I’ve seen so far this season and it more than made up for whatever blame the United fans may have attached to the goalkeeper for his involvement in the first goal.
We had another very decent chance to score when Eboue miscontrolled Gael Clichy’s cross before United, from absolutely nowhere, got themselves back in the game when Almunia brought down Wayne Rooney for a penalty. Although there were similarities with Eduardo’s dive against Celtic with Rooney clearly going down before Almunia made contact, the unfortunate point is that there WAS contact and the referee had no choice but to award the kick that Rooney easily converted.
Whereas Artur Boruc managed to pull out of the challenge Almunia followed through and although he made an effort to put both of his hands onto the deck to minimise the chance of a foul, the momentum of his body meant contact was unavoidable. It was poor goalkeeping in my opinion and although I remain a big fan of the Spaniard he has certainly been below his best in the opening few weeks of the season.
Soon after conceding we almost retook the lead when van Persie’s fierce free-kick was touched onto the bar by Foster before United scored again. A seemingly harmless free-kick from Giggs was floated into the area and Abou Diaby bizarrely headed into his own net. I’ve not yet met a supporter who can explain what Diaby was doing but from the replays I’ve seen I’ve come to one of two conclusions; (1) he was caught in two minds about whether to leave it for Almunia or (2) he was trying to head it back to Almunia. Either way it ended up badly for us and Diaby will be having nightmares for a little while to come yet.
Astonishingly he almost made amends for the own goal by scoring just seconds later, but despite a quite brilliant mazy run he could only hook his shot wide. Eboue then provided the sort of gamesmanship that we as a club just did not need at the moment, completing a horrible dive that saw him booked by the referee.
With the boos ringing around the stadium Eboue was substituted for Bendtner while they returned again two minutes later when Eduardo was brought on in place of the excellent but buggered Arshavin. With the game opening up it was Manchester United who went closest to a goal with substitute Dimitar Berbatov slicing wide and the Nani having a shot excellently saved by Almunia before blazing over the rebound.
Then came the moment that hurt the most; with the game deep into stoppage time van Persie had the ball in the net only for William Gallas, who worked hard to win the ball down for the Dutchman, to be flagged for offside. It was pandemonium to disgust in a matter of seconds although the replays showed the linesman clearly got it right.
The game then ended in a farce as Wenger was ridiculously and unfairly sent to the stands for kicking a water bottle out of frustration and could not find anywhere to sit down. It was a real comedy moment and this image will burn large in the memory for some time yet.
The first thing I want to say about Saturday’s game is that on the whole, I thought we played particularly well. Cristiano Ronaldo or no Cristiano Ronaldo, this was Manchester United at Old Trafford and for long stretches of the game we made them look distinctly ordinary. In open play our defensive performance was superb – Thomas Vermaelen, Gallas and Song again working terrifically well – while our midfield maintained possession confidently and worked extremely hard without the ball.
The general effort from the team was to be admired and had Foster been unable to foil van Persie with his foot then I have no doubt that we would have gone on to win the match. As it was, we had two defensive errors to blame (can Diaby’s even be considered an error, it still just seems so bizarre..?) for the surrendering of the points and sometimes that just happens in football. There’s no point dwelling on it because we know how well we played on Saturday and on another day we would have come away from Old Trafford with a sensational win.
I’m sure there will be a lot of you out there expecting me talk about the performance of the referee but in truth I don’t think there’s much point. He certainly got things wrong – Arshavin’s penalty appeal, for one – but at the end of the day I really don’t think his performance influenced the result of the game. Almunia gave him no choice but to blow for the penalty while the own goal had absolutely nothing to do with him. I feel we lost this game before of these two moments and to blame the referee or call bias would just take the focus off the mistakes made by our own players.
In terms of performances I thought there were three that particularly stood out to me today – Arshavin, van Persie and (don’t adjust your screen) Diaby. Arshavin showed once again showed his great character and a knack of performing on the big stages with a great goal just moments after clearly being brought down in the box. He was also the chief creator of our best other opportunity when he jinked down the touchline to set up van Persie.
Likewise I thought the Dutchman, who stepped in as captain in Fabregas’ absence, was inspiring despite getting no luck whatsoever. On another day he might have scored two but Evra’s knee, Foster’s foot, the crossbar and the offside flag meant he somehow ended the game as he started it, without a goal to his name this season.
And then there was Diaby. I am going to make a bold statement and say that despite the own goal I actually thought the Frenchman was our best player against United. Filling in for Fabregas was never going to be an easy tasked but he worked his socks off and used his unorthodox dribbling skills to great effect. Diaby is always going to go down as the villain of this game after his moment of madness but I felt it was an otherwise great performance by a player who looks set to make an impact this season.
To be honest the feeling I have coming away from this game is not one of anger or frustration about the result, but one of positivity regarding the quality of our performance. To lose at Old Trafford is never a disgrace and even the most hard-nosed United fan (read here for evidence) will know that Arsenal were the superior team in most departments of the game. Our boys worked harder, passed better, and were defensively more secure from open play than United’s and if we can put that sort of effort into every game this season than I think it bodes very well for the future.
As a final thought I say well done to the team on a fine effort, chin up to Diaby and let’s hope we can put things right against Emmanuel Adebayor and his City teammates in a fortnight’s time.
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