Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday April 14 2008
Before I start the report I am going to have to confess that I haven`t seen any highlights yet. So shoe horned into the corner of the East Stand, some of what occurred evaded me slightly. For instance, the handball for United`s penalty. All reports seem to suggest it was pretty blatant and needless, which is disappointing from our most experienced player. I`m glad Senderos wasn`t playing because I am sure the majority of Arsenal fans would have attempted to blame him by proxy. But all things considered, it was a fantastic performance from the team which makes me incredibly positive for next season. Having been administered a hammer blow on Tuesday night; it really took guts to go and take the game to United and do it so well. Not for the first time this season, Arsenal exceeded a lot of people`s expectations. However, we have taken the lead at Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge in the second half of games this season only to lose, which reveals that we need to learn to cope with pressure better than we do. But there were a number of very good performances yesterday, Gilberto looked like a man with a point to prove and really stepped up to the plate. He looked to have taken on board Flamini`s penchant for tenacious tackling. Emmanuel Eboue seems to draw criticism regardless of what he does, but I thought he had a tremendous first half; he stretched the United backline time and again, van Persie cutting in caused their backline to narrow and Eboue stayed out wide to stretch Evra and pull the back four about. Gael Clichy played with so much heart and so much tenacity that there was a real injustice to him finishing on the losing side.
My day began boarding an early morning train jammed with marathon runners. A day of great physical exhaustion and mental torment lay ahead. The marathon runners would doubtless have something similar in store. Anybody who has been jammed into the East Stand lower at Old Trafford will readily be able to tell you why United fans insist on persistent standing. The reason the admittedly impressive arena has such a capacity is because each seat measures in at about 10cm by 12cm. So it would be another afternoon of standing in the vocally resplendent away end. Sitting down would likely have caused one to leave large traces of ear wax on ankles, so we settled for scraped shins against the back of unforgiving seats instead. As the game kicked off, there was a feeling of defiance. It was all or nothing, nothing to lose and everything to gain. The feeling pervaded through the team, who seemed to relax and play some of their best football since that magical night in the San Siro. Paul Scholes performed his usual hatchet job, committing two fouls on Hleb inside the first four minutes. Howard the coward stood by and did nothing, but was only too happy to reach for his pocket when van Persie cleanly won the ball from Wes Brown. Perhaps Robin threw another one of those dastardly ghost punches that nobody but Howard can see?
Arsenal began the brighter, elements of the team selection looked to have surprised United. Van Persie was cutting in from the left and Brown did not know whether to follow him or not, Hleb was picking up space in the centre and Eboue played the chalk on the boots style winger everybody said they wanted and left Evra caught between two stools. This was elucidated with Arsenal`s first chance. Van Persie cut in from the left and fed Adebayor, he switched play to the right where Cesc was lurking with intent, but smashed a shot over the bar. The Gunners had the bit between their teeth, a marauding run from Toure down the right saw him play in his compatriot Eboue; Adebayor met his cut back with a goalbound shot which was blocked excellently by the imperious Ferdinand. I`ve the feeling that had Ferdinand been injured, Arsenal might have won yesterday. How he did not make the shortlist for PFA Player of the Year I`ve no idea. Awards such as this are constantly cheapened when only the glory boys are acknowledged. United were spurred into life thereafter, an otherwise quiet Cristiano Ronaldo beat Alex Song on the touchline, cut back for Rooney, but Lehmann made a brilliant point blank save. The game really began to open up and Arsenal immediately went to the other end and Alex Hleb danced through a myriad of challenges and played in Adebayor, but he placed a tame finish straight at van der Sar when he ought to have scored. Ade`s finishing has become infinitely better this year, but on the few occasions he has missed chances, he has not hid. So it would prove again.
On 36 minutes, United would produce a similarly gilt edged opportunity. A harmless looking long ball bounced over the leg of Alex Song and Rooney ran in on goal, yet again, Jens was on his mettle to make a brilliant sprawling save. The German was truly walking it like he has been furiously talking it. An entertaining first half drew to a close with the deadlock yet to be broken. Choruses of "it`s so quiet at Old Trafford" and "have you ever won the league at Highbury?" rang out in the first half. The reflective hush of the home fans reflecting Arsenal`s dominance. Arsenal knew that they had to twist in the second half and grabbed a vital goal. Evra`s umpteenth foul of the game saw Arsenal awarded a free kick on the right; van Persie played it short to Hleb, who teed up Fabregas. His shot was blocked, but van Persie picked up the pieces and swung in an inviting cross from the left, which Adebayor latched onto and bundled home. Apparently, the final touch came from his hand, I must say that once the celebrations had finished, we did remark that Ade appeared to be slow to celebrate. A much needed slice of luck in a desert of ill fortune. Minutes later, Arsenal could have extended the advantage. Adebayor broke away on the right in a counter attack, he sent a cross into the box and Ferdinand, with Gilberto breathing down his neck, volleyed the ball goalwards and van der Sar made an impressive reaction save.
But once again, Arsenal were complicit in their own downfall. A Hargreaves shot cannoned around in the area and United were awarded a penalty. Like I say, I was at the other end so could not really see it (please read in studious French accent). But no Arsenal players complained and Ronaldo stepped up and scored a twice taken penalty. Lehmann dived the right way on both occasions. Arsenal did not appear too down hearted and could have scored were it not for the divine intervention of Webb. Van Persie was fouled by Brown on the left, Webb waved play on as Adebayor made a beeline for goal, he dribbled around Ferdinand leaving him with only van der Sar to beat, but Webb reneged on his decision and pulled play back. I simply cannot fathom a reason for this; I am not going to tell you there is a vendetta against Arsenal from referees because that`s plainly rubbish. We`ve been unlucky, but no more than that. But with Webb, remembering that he wilfully shattered his own integrity in last February`s Carling Cup Final, this decision must be questioned. Someone may care to help me out here because that looked utterly contrived. Since Ferguson`s rant against Hackett, he has had a huge influence over the appointment of referees and Webb appeared too intimidated for my liking.
Both manager`s made attacking changes with a draw not much use to either side. Walcott and Tevez entered the fray and Tevez almost made an instant impact, curving a powerful shot just wide from long range. Walcott was not to be outdone and soon made a mark, jinking down the right before cutting an intelligent ball back for Fabregas who blasted just over. The Gunners best chance arrived on the 70 minute mark, the indefatigable Gael Clichy powered down the left and put in a low cross which Wes Brown deflected onto his own post. Three minutes later, Arsenal`s season was curtailed. Evra looped the ball in the air on the edge of the penalty area and, from where I was, threw himself to the floor. Maybe that`s unjust because I was far away, but I thought it was a cheap dive and Webb was easily conned. I hope he`s not planning on buying a second hand vehicle any time soon, because he`ll drive out of the forecourt in a three wheeled death trap with no breaks and a dodgy clutch. With Ronaldo lining up another of his pile drivers, Hargreaves fooled everybody by running up and delivering a sumptuous clip over the wall and into the corner. United began to take it easy believing the game to be won and Arsenal were buoyed by that complacency. Hoyte`s right wing cross was headed goalwards by Bendtner, but van der Sar palmed his effort away. Another Bendtner header drifted wide and as he stopped the ball drifting out of play, Rooney controlled with his arm in the area. There was no point in even protesting, Howard the Coward was never going to upset Sir like that.
The final whistle went and the Arsenal fans indulged an entirely spontaneous twenty five minute rendition of "we love you Arsenal." As Fabregas, Gallas and Theo disconsolately trudged over, the song rang out loud and clear. The United fans frustratedly tried to mock, but could not make themselves heard above the defiant chorus. On and on it went, with the United fans drifting out of the stadium, resigned to the fact that they could not quell us. It began to get ridiculous as it drifted on for ten, and then fifteen minutes. Giggs, O`Shea and Neville came out for the warm down and still we continued, the same chant over and over again. Defiant, proud. It really soothed the pain of defeat as the time drifted to quarter past six and still there we were in impressive numbers, booming out the same chant. The straggling United fans began filming us and taking photographs. Obviously this kind of support is unheard of at Old Trafford because then the stewards, who have always been heavy handed and just short of vicious at Old Trafford, began getting heavy. Firstly they surrounded us, trying to intimidate us and herd us out of the exits. We simply banded closer together and kept going. Eventually, stewards outrageously began to physically pluck people from the crowd and throw them out. I saw one guy thrown down the stairs, simply for singing "we love you Arsenal, we do" on a constant loop! I have since learned that Sky made no mention of this, which is understandable because it doesn`t support their oft perpetrated myth that only bare chested Geordies hounding their manager out of a club constitutes world class support. It would have done wonders for shaming the spoiled Emirates boo merchants into seeing what true support is. The consolation would be that the players would have heard it in their dressing rooms and I hope our message transmitted. Whatever the papers have to say, however people mock and however much the result effectively ends our season, we`re proud of this team and excited about next season. I already can`t wait, to the point that my friends and I have already planned our pre season trip to Huddersfield. The relentless chant was a fitting obituary, it might have ended bitterly for us this year, but we made a lot of critics look very stupid this season and we won`t be underestimated as a force again next year. The lessons learned will have been incalculable for a young squad and we`ll have a few more title races yet. Though the result was hurtful, the act of chivalry of the travelling fans at the end reminds us all that that`s the beauty of football. There`s always another game around the corner, always another season. I`m already excited about it.LD.
Date:Monday April 14 2008
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