Big Willy Rescues Arsenal
Yesterday's match did not fail to live up to they hype, it was an absorbing encounter as a spectacle and a very open encounter. United's ability to have numbers back, only to win back possession and suddenly have legions forward beggars belief. While Arsenal continued to play their expansive, probing passing game, with Hleb and Fabregas again chief architects. This game has historically been about mouth watering match ups, but while Keown, van Nistelrooy, Vieira, Kena, Beckham and Cole may all be gone, the new breed are able to match their predecessors. The grit of Hargreaves and Flamini was every bit as enjoyable to behold as the pioneering of Fabregas and Giggs.
The match began in a fairly cagey fashion with both teams 'feeling each other out.' United had two solid banks of four obstructing an Arsenal side who clearly missed the guile of van Persie. As soon as United regained possession, United's sprint relay squad of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney were away, usually with Giggs at the hub of their every machination. Great players are capable of reinventing themselves and Giggs may have lost some pace and the toes don't twinkle quite as they used to, but his positional sense and his ability to use the younger legs around him is quite remarkable. Arsenal's first sniff of an opportunity came when Alex Hleb teased the United defence, jinked past Vidic who pulled his shirt in the box. It should have been a penalty, but I acknowledge that the referee was blind sided and it would have been a difficult call to make in a game of this magnitude. United had the first goalscoring opportunity when Ronaldo teased his way past Flamini and put in a low cross, Giggs arrived unchecked at the back post but his deft touch went just wide. Arsenal replied in kind, they won a free kick on the right, skipper Gallas went and had a word in Cesc's ear, presumably the conversation followed, WG: 'Cesc. see that ball?' FF: 'Yeah?' WG: 'Stick it on me bonce son.' FF: 'Will do skip.' Fabregas flighted in the free kick which Gallas met with a firm header, but van der Sar smuggled it away from goal with his shins.
But with a goaless half looking a formality, United took the lead. Wes Brown shrugged off Alex Hleb on United's right hand side and fed Ronaldo, his low cross was scuffed at the front post by Wayne Rooney, but took an unfortunate ricochet off the hand of skip and into the net. Rooney wheeled away in celebration, the only time in the whole match he was less than two yards from Howard Webb's lugholes. My phone vibrated and a message from a United supporting mate, 'cheers William.' How I would have the last laugh! But Arsenal were not to be deflated and grabbed a precious equaliser minutes after the restart. Hleb collected the ball under pressure from Anderson deep inside his own half, but the magic Belarussian twisted and tunred his way out of trouble before delivering a sumptuous pass to Fabregas who had found space for the first time in the game. He found Adebayor who fended off Vidic to search out Eboue and Eboue responded with a fantastically weighted chip which Adebayor met on the volley, van der Sar was quick to smother, but Banger kept the ball alive with a determined slide tackle. Cesc Fabregas was composure personnified as he controlled and gently placed the ball into the net. He had obviously learnt his lesson from last week's thrashed effort at Anfield. The goal was also significant for Adebayor's role in it, in the first half he infuriatingly drifted wide, which defies logic when you consider that he was our lone striker and we had Hleb, Rosicky and Eboue on the pitch, not to mention two very attacking full backs. But Adebayor stayed central in this move and was a vital pivot in the goal arriving.
Both sides stepped up a gear in search of a winner as the match became increasingly stretched. Howard Webb continued to act the complete fool by understanding the definition of a tackle and time and again incorrectly penalising both sides for fair challenges. Webb also allowed himself to be influenced by United's constant electioneering, crowding him at every opportunity and furiously debating the most blatant of decisions. Rooney, Brown and Ferdinand were the key culprits. Together with John Terry and Steve Gerrard's weekly antics, is it time to ask whether referee bating is an English epidemic? No, don't be stupid, of course it isn't. It's those stupid foreigners.
United threatened again when Rooney dropped deep to find space, once again found Ryan Giggs in a dangerous position, but Rooney headed Giggs' inch perfect cross wide when he should have done better. But United did grab a late goal and it looked to be goodnight Vienna for the Gunners. Upon Walcott's arrival from the bench and onto the right wing, the three wise men (myself, John and Lord Lowe) held counsel and decided that his defensive frailties might cost us with Evra looking dangerous on the left. It was a chilling prophecy as Saha received the ball on United's left, saw the marauding run of Evra, which Walcott failed to track, and played his compatriot in. Almunia came off his line when he really should have stayed at home, Gallas was covering Evra, but Almunia made it easier for United than it ought to have been. Evra cut back for Ronaldo who was left with an open goal in the Spaniard's absence. The goalkeeping conundrum simply will not go away.
I did not think there was a way back, but Arsenal kept pushing. A low Clichy cross was attacked by Adebayor, the ball drifted through to Evra who screwed the ball onto his own crossbar. With the board for injury time showing, Fabregas whipped in a right wing free kick, the ball bounced to Eduardo who antched at his volley and it looked like our last chance had gone. But the Gunners' redoubled and attacked again. Clichy's bloody minded determination carried his weary limbs down the left flank, his low cross was scuffed at the front post by Gallas, but the ball fell invitingly for Walcott who inexplicably lost his head and scuffed his shot well wide. Fortunately for us, Gallas was on hand with a coller head to guide the ball over the line. I sit on the East side of the ground and immediately saw the linesman flagging furiously below me as Gallas sprinted away in delight. It was lucky the linesman did see it because Walcott once again missed two simple attempts to put it over the line and make sure. It was a deserved goal for Gallas, who along with Toure had a colossal game at the back. We are truly beginning to see the Gallas who was the glue in Chelsea's resolute backline for all of those years. The last week has showed us that he is a big game player, and you can never have too many of those. I have been accused of showing leniency in the past in my assessment of Gallas, but it has always been clear that with his fitness in check, this guy is world class and he's really shwoing it now. Of course, I wittily replied to my Manc friend, 'cheers William.' His reply is not really repeatable before the watershed, but involved a scenario whereby I might like to perform a particular act upon somebody's manhood. I told him I couldn't possibly, one Willy had already given me enough excitement for one day.LD.