Manchester United closed the gap on league leaders Chelsea to just one point this afternoon with a comprehensive win against a poor Arsenal side at the Emirates Stadium. Alex Ferguson spoke prior to the game about its importance in terms of dictating the final destination of this year’s title, dubbing the match United’s “most important of the season so far” and his side certainly played as if they also believed this to be the case.
The game started at an extremely fast pace, with both sides looking threatening early on. The best chances of the early exchanges fell to Andrei Arshavin who after some excellent play twice cut in from the left only to see his efforts go to waste without troubling Edwin van der Sar in the United goal. It was not to be the Russian’s day.
At the other end, some slick passing moves and incredible pace from Luis Nani in getting past Arsenal left back Gael Clichy, almost led to the opener. Darren Fletcher played a neat ball in front of Nani down the right and despite the Portuguese winger looking second favourite to get it, his scintillating pace saw him latch onto the ball and put a dangerous cross along the Arsenal 6 yard box which looked destined for Wayne Rooney until an excellent William Gallas tackle snuffed out the chance. This should have served as a warning to the Arsenal side, but if it did, it went unheeded.
Arsenal had one more good chance before falling behind. Captain Cesc Fabregas burst through the middle of the United defence before teeing up Arshavin who fluffed his shot, only for the ball to ricochet back to Fabregas in front of the United goal. Fabregas however was not expecting such luck and struggled to get the ball from under his feet before Jonny Evans nicked it away.
United went ahead soon afterwards. Alex Ferguson’s side, who by now had started to gain a slight upper hand worked the ball out to Nani,whose options looked limited as he was quickly set upon by two Arsenal defenders. Nani however has rediscovered some form of late and what followed was reminiscent of his Portuguese predecessor on the United right wing. Drawing in both defenders Nani skilfully scooped the ball between them and jumped their tackle. He then made his way menacingly into the Arsenal box, first selling Samir Nasri with a subtle drop of his shoulder before lifting the ball over Manuel Almunia from an incredibly tight angle. Almunia, in his efforts to stop the ball reaching Ji Sun Park on the back post palmed the ball into his own net for United to take a 33rd minute lead.
Arsenal looked shaken and worse was soon to follow. An Arsenal corner found its way to Fabregas outside the United box. His shot was blocked and what followed was a mixture of stunning athleticism and textbook counter-attacking football.
The ball broke to Rooney who quickly looked up and saw Nani darting away into the opposition half before firing a ball for him to seamlessly run onto. As soon as he had played the ball Rooney set off on a blistering run in a determined effort to catch up with play. With the Arsenal defenders back-pedalling desperately, Nani continued at pace with the ball at his feet before playing a beautifully weighted ball into the path of the onrushing Rooney, who had somehow succeeded in covering the required ground. The English man dispatched it cooly into the Arsenal net and United had scored again within 5 minutes of the opener. Alex Ferguson jumped out of his seat waving his hands above his head in trademark fashion. On the opposite bench Arsene Wenger looked furious.
The goal was Rooney’s 100th in the Premier League, lending itself to a beautiful symmetry, seeing that his first, as a freshfaced 16 year old in an Everton shirt, was also scored against the Gunners, when he audaciously marked his arrival into the Premier League scene by sending a looping shot over David Seaman from 30 yards.
Nani wasted another good United chance before both sides retreated to the dressing rooms at half time with no doubt over who was the happier.
A number of weeks ago, Wenger, so often quiet and reserved, famously raged at his team at the half time interval of their clash with Liverpool. Arsenal came out in the second half and overturned a 1-0 deficit to win the game 2-1. If Wenger tried the same tactic this time, it certainly failed to reproduce the same effect in his players, as within just seven minutes of the restart the game was over as a contest.
Another quick counter attack saw Darren Fletcher chip the ball toward Ji Sun Park on the left and the South Korean broke toward the Arsenal goal and slipped a neat finish past Almunia on his near side. Arsenal were decimated and simply couldn’t live with such counter attacking brilliance. Had he wanted, Park could have slipped the ball to either Rooney or Nani, who had both gotten themselves in positions for an easy finish if required.
With the hard work done, United began to sit back and Arsenal, now playing without fear, for all was already lost, began to exert some consistent pressure on their opponents. Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner were introduced and the Gunners got a goal back in the 80th minute courtesy of a defelcted effort from Thomas Vermaelen.
The next few minutes were a little nervy for United as the Arsenal fans became alive again and Arsenal sought another goal. It wasn’t to come however and indeed the best chances of the remaining period fell to United and Wayne Rooney in particular, whose performance could have seen him bag another hat-trick to add to the one he scored against Hull last weekend. If he had, it would have been no more than he deserved, the United number 10 was immense and had Arsenal terrified every time he got the ball.
This was United’s best display of the season and Ferguson will be hoping that his side, following another strong display in overcoming Manchester City in the Carling Cup in midweek, will continue this form towards May and snatch yet another Premier League trophy in the process. As for Arsenal, who knows? Wenger will come under more pressure; his side have an aggregate score of 5-18 from their encounters with United and Chelsea over the past 12 months. This is a startling statistic for a team with intentions of being crowned the best in the land. The fact is that this squad is a long way off that. The professor won’t sleep happily tonight, especially knowing that once again he was out-thought by a hot-headed Scotsman with a penchant for whiskey.
Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna (Bendtner 72), Vermaelen, Gallas, Clichy, Fabregas, Rosicky (Eboue 71), Nasri, Denilson (Walcott 61), Song Bilong, Arshavin
Unused Subs: Fabianski, Silvestre, Traore, Ramsey
Manchester United: Van der Sar, Rafael, Brown, Evans, Evra, Nani (Berbatov 89), Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes (Giggs 71), Park (Valencia 87), Rooney
Unused Subs: Kuszczak, De Laet, Gibson, Owen