This fixture has often provided a classic spectacle in the English Premier League – and technically, you could lend the term to this latest chapter in the great rivalry between two of the domestic heavyweights using a contemporary reference – it was classic Manchester United, digging out a win despite being nowhere near their best, and classic Arsenal, showing plenty of on the ball ability and none of the steel required to seriously challenge for honours.
As fortuitous as the victory came about for the Champions after their lacklustre display, their 3 points came as a result of a dogged display and was, to that end, completely deserved.
The first 35 minutes were instantly forgettable – an unfamiliar line up fielded by Sir Alex Ferguson saw Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov on the bench while Antonio Valencia and Nani flanked Wayne Rooney up front. The decision backfired as United failed to impose themselves on the game and Arsenal took full advantage. A foray from the visitors into the home box led to Darren Fletcher challenging Andrey Arshavin inside the box – initial views seemed to indicate it was a strong but perfect challenge, replays showed that Fletcher had taken Arshavin out AND handballed. Any fortune the hosts had quickly evaporated as Arshavin exacted full vindication with a 20 yard drive that went in – defenders Vidic and O’Shea should have done far better in closing him down, and keeper Foster should probably have done better when dealing with the shot.
Straight after the break all the nervousness of United’s midfield seemed to translate to the defenders and Arsenal dominated the early exchanges, threatening to score again. Arshavin crossed for van Persie who should have converted but Foster made amends for any fault in the goal with a stunning save with his left leg.
Inspiration was needed and it came from three sources – Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney. Rooney began to take the game by the scruff of the neck and really forced the issue, while Giggs, despite a poor performance, used all of his experience to play two excellent passes that changed the game. The first was a slide rule pass to pick out Rooney who got to the ball ahead of Arsenal stopper Almunia who brought the England striker down.
Rooney dusted himself off to step him and easily, if completely undeservedly, drag United back in the game. Less than 10 minutes later and the direction of the game had totally swung. Giggs’ free kick was converted, unchallenged, into his own net by Abou Diaby. Arsenal offered little in the way of a force back into the game – instead, crumbling and inviting United to have chance after chance to add to their lead, with substitute Berbatov and Nani having gilt edged chances to add gloss to the scoreline but wasting their opportunities. Fletcher meanwhile threw himself tooth and nail into every challenge after a poor first half in a determined attempt to rescue the game and such an effort did not go unnoticed by the crowd or the manager.
The Gunners did have the ball in the net, albeit a full 10 seconds after the flag was raised for offside, and Arsene Wenger was needlessly sent off for his over the top reaction.
The game was seen out comfortably by United but Wenger felt the need to blow his top after the game, hinting his side had been cheated out of a penalty, and stating that a United player had committed “twenty fouls” and escaped a yellow card by a card happy referee Mike Dean but adopting a familiar position regarding a diabolical dive by Eboue with an “I didn’t see it comment”, and in the wake of the recent antics of his players, the experienced manager perhaps should wait before judging the decisions that go against his team when taking into account his teams all too recent deceptive activity.
As for United’s manager, Ferguson papered over very evident cracks by claiming he was impressed by what he saw as an imposing second half display, but he must surely be concerned by a lack of physical presence by his midfielders in yet another game.
Ratings : Foster 7, O’Shea 6, Vidic 6, Brown 5, Evra 6, Fletcher 8, Carrick 5, Giggs 7(Berbatov), Valencia 5 (Park 5), *Rooney 8, Nani 6.