Arsenal 2, Manchester United 1. Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.
A win over Manchester United is always satisfying but for Arsene Wenger and our players to do it in the manner they did on Saturday was wonderful. The result and the performance was as good as an Arsenal supporter could ask for while the game as a spectacle was more than any football fan in the world could have expected. It was brilliant stuff and both sets of players and their managers should be congratulated for playing in such a positive manner.
From an Arsenal perspective it’s no exaggeration to say that this could turn out to be the defining match of our season. And what a match it turned out to be.
The starting side with was exactly the same as the one I predicted on Friday. Manuel Almunia returned in goals behind an all-French back four of Bacary Sagna, William Gallas (C), Mikael Silvestre and Gael Clichy. The return of Gallas to the side was a huge factor in the win. He was inspirational on the day as he won headers and tackles and barked instructions at the team around him. It was wonderful to see.
The manager went for a five-man midfield with Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri on the wings and Denilson shielding the back four to allow Cesc Fabregas and particularly Abou Diaby to push forward and support lone ranger Nicklas Bendtner up top. It proved to be the right move as Nasri scored two goals and Fabregas and Diaby caused all sorts of problems attacking from the middle.
This was a game of many chances, the first coming after just 90 seconds when Michael Carrick fired wide after Almunia handled a nervous Silvestre back-pass. This crazy start ignited the contest as Dimitar Berbatov was denied a goal by the offside flag and Bendtner missed a pair of headers after lovely crosses by Clichy and Nasri.
Diaby then failed to punish some poor goalkeeping by Edwin van der Sar before Rooney blew a glorious chance for United when he fired over the bar from Ronaldo’s cross. It was an incredible miss given the Englishman’s recent form and one which may have given our players a bit of a ‘this might just be our day’ feeling. Cheers Wayne.
Rooney’s miss was punished in the best possible way by Arsenal when Samir Nasri scored the opener shortly afterwards. Fabregas’ free-kick on the right was cleared by Berbatov before the little Frenchman fired a low half-volley which deflected past van der Sar by Gary Neville. On one hand there was a huge amount of luck in the goal but in the other it was a reward for a player who clearly enjoys having a pop at goal. Alex who?
Shortly after we took the lead United went ridiculously close to equalising when Ronaldo’s free kick was somehow headed wide by the retreating Clichy. With Berbatov lurking behind is was vital that the Arsenal defender got a touch but 99 time out of a 100 this would have hit the back of the net. It was another stroke of vital luck that allowed our boys to hold the lead.
Wenger’s men could have even gone into the lead two goals to the good when first Fabregas then Walcott fired wide, the latter after smacking the ball into the turf and over in a very Robert Pires sort of fashion. In between those chances Park Ji-Sung forced Almunia into a fine save to his right before the Spanish goalkeeper saved again from a decent Anderson shot on the stroke of half-time.
1-0 to Arsenal, but as you can probably gather it could have been 2-2 or even 3-3.
Having the lead at the break seemed to inspire the Arsenal team going into the second half and they sensationally doubled their lead in the 47th minute. An immaculate 15-pass team move involving Sagna, Diaby, Bendtner, Denilson saw Nasri fire home spectacularly from Fabregas’ expertly waited pass. A better goal from our boys you’ll be lucky to see this season and it came at the perfect time. Theo Walcott’s run was essential to create space for Nasri and his finish was emphatic. We were in dreamland.
But, just as they did after going behind in the first half, United very nearly scored straight from the restart. Park created space for himself on the left before drifting a ball across to the unmarked Ronaldo, but the Portuguese man missed by no less than an inch. Ronaldo popped up again moments later to force a catch out of Almunia before Walcott scuffed a half-chance at the other end.
As the second half wore on both sides continued to make chances. Almunia held onto a decent header from Rooney before copping an unfortunate kick to the head by Carrick. The Spaniard received treatment and was forced off shortly after but not before Arsenal should have gone three up after Nemanja Vidic pulled down Nasri in the penalty area. Replays showed that the Frenchman’s shirt was pulled by the Serbian but the referee’s view was blocked and it was understandably not given. A very lucky moment for United though.
Bendtner hit a tame shot straight at van der Sar before United drew level in the 89th minute through a tremendous goal by substitute right-back Rafael da Silva. Arsenal hearts were beating fast, none more than yours truly, and things got even worse when the fourth official held up the board to indicate 6 minutes of added time. All I could think about was the Tottenham game and I was nothing short of a muttering mess until the end of the match.
I need not have worried though as Arsenal’s focus and effort in the final few minutes was superb. Fabianski deserves credit for the way in which he athletically claimed a difficult high ball while Gallas and Silvestre did all they could to punt the ball up field. Bendtner fired a tired late effort over the bar after a wonderful pass by Nasri but it mattered not as the referee blew the final whistle to ensure Arsenal ended an absolutely thrilling match with all three points.
I thought the team’s performance on a whole was very good, with maybe only Theo Walcott disappointing. The movement by Fabregas, Nasri and Diaby in the middle was superb and Denilson did a fine job of mopping up in front of the back four. Bendtner had an ultimately fruitless day up front but his tireless effort was crucial in wearing down the United defence and creating space for the likes of Nasri to exploit. As for the little Frenchman, he was the clear man of the match and took both goals superbly well.
There were huge concerns raised going into the game about the lack of leadership at the club but today that couldn’t be further from the truth. Captain Gallas put in a tireless performance while the other players I consider to be leaders in the squad – Fabregas and Almunia – were excellent. The goalkeeper had a tough time of things in the corresponding fixture last season and has looked a little wobbly of late but he was nothing short of brilliant against United. After a nervous start he held shots, commanded his area and made a thrilling save to deny Park in the first half. Well done to him.
Without trying to take any shine off our performance the one message that I’ll be taking out of this game is that luck plays a huge part in modern-day football. If Rooney had taken his early chance, Clichy had got just a little bit more on his header or Ronaldo placed his shot just a little to the right then this may have been a very different game. But as they say, you earn your own luck and the effort and desire we showed was enough to see Arsenal win the best football game I’ve watched in a long time. Magnificent.
So we’re right back in the title race after a fine win in a thrilling game. But, as the hero of the match said shortly afterwards, were we ever out of it?
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