Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday May 17 2009
Waking at 4am in teeming rain to drive to a party you've not been invited to and that you do not really want to be at is not the most prurient desire of the football fan. Indeed, I was aware of many Gooners who had given up their tickets for this match, a bit immature really, but I guess some people are just weak characters. Sometimes in football, as in life, you've just got to take your medicine and keep smiling. But us Arsenal apparatchiks motored on regardless, driving past an uncomfortable amount of cars decked out in United colours. United fans driving to the game from the South? Hard to believe isn't it?
Arsenal fans made it into the ground and were on good voice, the obviously defiant rendition of 'We won the league in Manchester' was repeated with quite some gusto. United's support was startlingly quiet throughout the entire game. The tannoy had to step in on their behalf both pre match and at half time with an intentionally antagonistic and quite poor recording of Doris Day's 'Que sera, sera' but with the lyrics replaced to 'we went to Arsenal and scored three, now we're going to Italy.' A touch classless but ultimately all fun and games. The away fans' response was to chant Thierry Henry's name, nailing their colours to the mast come May 27th. Naturally, now he has left Arsenal, he might well have worked out how not to bottle a major final. The game began with United looking uncharcateristically guarded, needing only a point to secure the title, the psychological impediment to attack had been soemwhat compromised. This translated into the home support who looked on in tense silence. I realise our home ground is no cauldron of noise, but I just get really annoyed when people suggest that is a situation unique to Arsenal. 'Shit support and that's a fact' came the response from around me in the East Stand, whilst one young man volubly derided the affair with, 'what a shitty party.'
Arsenal took control of possession but United's rearguard is one precocious unit indeed. As with dozens of other teams this season, United worked out that if you force Arsenal out to the flanks, you can leave them to their own devices such is the poverty of the crossing. Time and again, the ball was worked out to Sagna, who largely turned in poor crosses. On the rare occasions that he was able to lift the ball higher than three feet, van Persie found himself alone in a sea of United defenders. The Gunners first chance came when Arshavin drifted over to the right, presumably fed up with Sagna's non league quality crossing and delivered a precise floating ball over to van Persie at the backpost, which evaded Vidic, but the Dutch striker panicked and headed over when he probably had time to take the ball down. United forged an identical chance minutes later when Carrick swung a ball over Sagna's head to the back post and Rooney, peeling in from the left flank, headed narrowly wide. United briefly stirred, Rooney played a ball to the onrushing Giggs, he partied like it was 1999 as once again he got a fortuitous bounce off an Arsenal centre half, Toure's tackle ricocheting right into his path, but he tamely blasted the ball over on this occasion. 'Player of the year? You're having a laugh,' came the mocking retort.
But Arsenal reassumed control of the game, Arshavin weaved in and out between O'Shea and Evans, marauding into the box before Vidic's interception halted him at the crucial moment. Arshavin again it was who was causing the problems when he skipped past O'Shea to the byline, pulled the ball back to Nasri, his shot was trickling wide, van Persie attempted to redirect it but could not angle his foot correctly. Arsenal's task was being made harder by an almost venal referee, Giggs' lunge on Denilson went unpunished, whilst Nasri, Fabregas, Song and Arshavin were all booked for their first offences. Of those, only Fabregas' was clearly deserved. Nasri's foul on Evra appears in the English dictionary next to the word 'innocuous', yet because Evra screwed his face up tightly enough and let the bottom lip tremble, Dean did as he was told. To think Evra had the temerity to refer to Arsenal players as babies. Every performative Ronaldo swan dive was rewarded, whilst Denilson was twice kicked and penalised for trying to stay on his feet. It was quite an unbelievable performance from Dean, the worst I have seen in one of our games this season. It is the only time in some years I have indefinitely felt the referee was not merely incompetent, but just plain biased. He did not even make it subtle, ensuring plenty of invective from 3,000 supporters who had spent a lot of money and time to travel to a fixture and watch a referee try and spoil it. I thank my lucky stars United did not make it into the penalty area above twice, because I'm sure he would have willingly serviced United to the Sretford End's instruction.
I expected a different United in the second period, I could not see Ferguson allowing his players more malaise. But United's number one priority was not to concede and fair play to them, theirs is the best defence on earth at the moment and they are quite capable of neutering the most potent of attacks. Arsenal forrayed down the right again, Fabregas playing in Sagna, he pulled the ball back to Arshavin on the edge of the box, the diminutive Russian shifted the ball to Gibbs on the left who fired into the side netting. What a wonderful and deserved tonic a goal would have been for him. United were by no means at full tilt in an attacking sense, yet Gibbs still had the thankless task of shackling Ronaldo, a task he performed with distinction. (Ronaldo did not produce much in a footballing sense, but his amusingly self centred diva strops ensured he stayed centre stage. I think Ferguson will get rid this summer). The home side's best chance arrived on 65 minutes, the tireless Fletcher roared down the right and cut the ball back to Tevez, he brilliantly ousted Toure on the turn before a risky slide tackle from Fabianski denied him, Ronaldo blasted the ball well over from the rebound. Credit to Tevez for staying on his feet under Fabianski's challenge, Tevez would have been fully aware that Dean would have given him a penalty the second he hit the turf.
Tevez was substituted shortly after, drawing loud boos for Ferguson from the Old Trafford crowd. It was the first noise they had made all day, Tevez waved a very deliberate goodbye to all four sides of the ground. 'You'll never play here again' was the unsympathetic response from the visitors' section. Sometimes it is important we realise that Arsenal fans aren't the only ones in the world who unreasonably boo their own, Ferguson was booed by his own fans on the day he landed his 11th league title. United can think themselves unlucky to have had a goal ruled out when Ji Sung Park played Ronaldo in behind the Arsenal defence, but he was incorrectly adjudged offside by the linesman. Ronaldo then blasted a free kick agonisingly wide, as Wenger bought on Walcott on the left- an indication of how little change Theo got out of Evra in the last fortnight- and Bendtner. United sat back for the last twenty minutes and Arsenal were enthused. Bendtner gave the ball to Alex Song on the egde of the area, he brilliantly shifted his feet to evade two challenges before nudging the ball left to Fabregasand his left foot shot cannoned off the post and wide. Despite no touch from van der Sar, the linesman gave a corner. It would appear the assistant referee was trying to even out Dean's unabashed support for the home side.
Nerves jangled in Old Trafford when a Rooney foul and customary dissent saw Arsenal awarded a free kick on the edge of the box. Rooney, naturally, was not booked. van Persie's wicked delivery was headed out for a corner as Arsenal scented blood. But Dean alleviated the injury time pressure by giving a non existent foul in the box before blowing the whistle a good sixty seconds early. The celebrations began in ernest as United were crowned champions, and deservedly so. We stayed to applaud our players, who gave us the reaction we wanted after their poor capitulation to Chelsea last week. But we filed out before the presentation took place, if you've ever been to Old Trafford you know how horrendous the traffic gets on Europa Way, it was pleasing and a little surreal to make such a swift escape when leaving this ground usually results in a good hour sat stationary on Sir Matt Busby Way. Though United were not at their best, it was a pleasing display, albeit we could not break United down readily. van Persie worked tirelessly as a lone striker but was too often isolated and not supported by Nasri or Fabregas. The end result was that we could not threaten. Arshavin's guile seemed to be the only thing we could count on fora breakthrough. I will also say, because nobody else will, how much more solid we looked in front of the defence with Denilson marshalling, breaking up United's counter attacks and retaining possession in difficult areas. It's no coincidence we have shipped so many goals since he was dropped for Song, I'm just desperately sorry Arsenal fans refuse to recognise it. The pain of watching and listening to United celebrate should be the tonic to motivate us for next season. For now, congratulations to United, but be warned, don't write us off next season.LD.
Date:Sunday May 17 2009
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