Arsenal maintained their lead at the top of the Premiership table after a hard-fought 2-2 draw with second place Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
The home side were forced to come from behind twice against their major title rivals, with Arsenal captain William Gallas proving to be the hero after an excellent stoppage-time equaliser. Despite the thrilling finish to the contest the first half was a relatively quiet affair until just a minute before the break when Manchester United took the lead through an unfortunate Gallas own goal. But Arsenal took just two minutes of the second half to get back in the game when Cesc Fabregas finished smartly from Bacary Sagna’s pass. United then looked to have won the match when Cristiano Ronaldo tapped into an empty net in the 81st after good work from substitute Louis Saha and Patrice Evra, but Arsenal found a late reply through the most unlikely source when Gallas redeemed himself by firing home from the tightest of angles deep into injury time.
I watched this match with a few friends at a Brisbane pub packed with supporters of both sides and the atmosphere was explosive. I have a real hatred of Manchester United going back to a few years ago when both they and Arsenal would regularly fight for the title and it felt great to watch a game between the two sides that was again as important. I am not sorry to admit that I’ve always been a little scared of Manchester United – whenever the play Arsenal they always seem to ruin the rhythm of Arsene Wenger’s side – and it was the same again in the first half at the Emirates.
Aside from a headed effort from Gallas and a foul on Alexander Hleb in the penalty area being turned down Arsenal had made little impression on the United goal. It was no better at the other end with only Ryan Giggs threatening before Rooney/Gallas opened the scoring. Neither the Arsenal captain nor their goalkeeper was culpable for the goal, it was just a top quality move from United on the right to create the chance combined with a huge slice of luck to turn that chance into a goal. But a goal it was and it could not really have come at a worse time for Wenger’s side.
A thrilling second half
Half-time, 1-0 down and United had comfortably dealt with everything that Arsenal had thrown at them. But as they did a week earlier against Liverpool, Arsenal somehow got back into the game. That they found an equaliser at all was quite surprising, that they found it so soon after the break was nothing short of sensational. Emmanuel Eboue – who was dangerous throughout the match – lifted a clever ball into the area that his namesake Emmanuel Adebayor did well to get on the end of before clattering into United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. The loose ball fell to Sagna, who cleverly slid the ball over to Fabregas on the penalty spot and he turned and slipped the ball past Rio Ferdinand on the line. The Arsenal supporters in the pub absolutely exploded and it was game on again.
Rooney should have scored with a relatively simple header and Almunia was unlucky not to be punished for coming out too late to prevent an Evra cross (not for the last time, of course) before Tomas Rosicky, who had a quiet match, might have done better with a half-chance from outside the box. Time was ticking down and it looked likely that things would stay at 1-1 until Manchester United substitute Saha combined beautifully with Evra to set up Ronaldo for the third goal of the match. I really felt it was an excellent piece of play by United and Evra, who should of been tracked by substitute Theo Walcott, took four Arsenal players out of the equation with his run. A lot of people will criticise Almunia’s involvement in the goal but when it’s all said and done he would’ve been unlikely to save Ronaldo’s shot if he had stayed on his line. Baring that in mind, I do agree with Wenger’s relatively simplistic take on things.
“He rushed out to block the cross and he was unhappy with his decision making. He left his goal and didn’t get the ball, so he’ll feel as if he made a mistake.”
At 2-1 with less than ten minutes to go in the match I again thought it was over. I had Manchester United supporters all around me singing and carrying on and I felt absolutely devastated. To Arsenal’s credit they kept trying to play football and their effort was finally rewarded with a late, late equaliser through arguably the best player on the pitch. Gael Clichy did a marvellous job to create space for himself wide on the left and curled in a beautiful ball that eventually reached Walcott at the back post. But the youngster scuffed his shot wide and Gallas, who had gone close to reaching Clichy’s inital cross, turned the ball goalwards.
Van der Sar looked to have saved his effort and the ball fell to Walcott who had another two bites at it before the linesman and referee signal a goal and the score is 2-2. If it sounds like absolute mayhem it’s because it was. The ball was going all over the place in the box before I noticed the Arsenal supporters in pub jumping up and down and cheering about something. Not knowing what had happened, I turned to the fellow next to me, who happened to be a Liverpool supporter, and had the following conversation:
Myself: “What happened? Did somebody win a penalty?”
Liverpool Guy: “It’s a goal mate, somebody scored!”
Myself: “A goal?”
Liverpool Guy: “Yep.”
Myself: *hugs Liverpool guy* “YEEEAAAHHHH!!!”
Great display of character
Of course, in the middle of all the mayhem was a goal that Arsenal supporters will remember for the rest of their lives. For a central defender to be that far forward so late in the game is one thing, but for a central defender to produce such a technically astute piece of finishing is another thing entirely and Gallas deserves full credit for his effort. It was a marvellous finish to an excellent game of football and I would dare say that under the circumstances, Arsenal will be far happier with the result than their opponents. The simple fact is that Gallas’ late equaliser turned a three-point deficit at the top of the table into a potential three-point lead and that is why the Arsenal players celebrated like it was a win. Arsene Wenger spoke in detail about his thoughts on the game and this was the bit that I liked the best.
“We didn’t find completely our flowing game, didn’t find our creative side of the game and we had more to rely on character and determination.”
To come through the games against Liverpool and Manchester United without losing despite falling behind on three occasions is an excellent outcome, and one that I feel all Arsenal supporters should be content with. Wenger mentioned that he had been expecting to gain four points from the two matches but the fact is that two of Arsenal’s major rivals for the title were unable to gain any ground on them and they still remain on top of the table. A loss against Manchester United would have been a huge confidence blow to Wenger’s young side and a huge psychological boost for their closest rivals so in many ways the draw was as good as a win. And don’t think Sir Alex Ferguson hasn’t realised it either, his inappropriate outburst at the referees after the match just served to give away how frustrated he was with the final result.
Finally, to all those United fans who have said to me that it was a poor result for Arsenal because they were the home side, have a look back over the results between the sides over the past few seasons and let me know whether home ground advantage has counted for anything. What’s that, it hasn’t? What a surprise.
What do you think?
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