Manchester United 2 Arsenal 1
Having begun 2009-10 with some comfortable victories, Arsenal`s first big test of the season was to arrive at Old Trafford. The signs were ominous as the journey was fraught with difficulty (those of you that have ever used London Underground will need no further elaboration), whilst heavy traffic was the signature of the whole journey until we arrived in Manchester at around 4.15pm. Our difficulties were not over there, as the electronic turnstiles refused to accept our legitimately purchased tickets. So with twenty or so minutes until kick off, myself and Lord Lowe were left to join a long, snaking Box Office queue to rectify the situation. The pithy response from a particularly unhelpful United Box Office employee was that there had been an electronic fault with the turnstiles and that the problem had now been solved. We later learned that his explanation had been as credible as a Mike Dean yellow card as our tickets still did not work upon our return and none of the United stewards seemed to have heard anything about this so called fault. Seeing our tickets were genuine, one steward took pity and let us in. But the furore was not over there. As the teams emerged from the tunnel, two gentlemen made their way to our seats with absolutely identical tickets-bought quite legitimately from the Arsenal Box Office. For some reason our tickets had been duplicated and we missed the opening minutes of the game as United`s Chief Steward worked quickly to find a solution. Credit to the United stewards here for letting myself and Lord Lowe shoehorn ourselves into a couple of empty seats to watch the game as they sorted the issue down in the concourse and a solution was found quickly and efficiently. United`s stewards have not always been the friendliest but on this occasion they were incredibly helpful and we were grateful for the swift resolution.
Anyways, it was on to the match and the full blooded nature of this contest that seemed to have diluted in recent years was back with a vengeance. Typically, though both teams were robust in the challenge, Mike Dean was in full concession to the hosts. I lost count of the accumulative fouls between Fletcher, Carrick and Valencia that were not punished. Song was booked for Arsenal`s first foul of the match and Sagna was booked for claiming a throw in. It was an excellent, entertaining, full blooded, pendulous encounter between two excellent teams with two excellent sets of players. The only person that looked out of place in the arena was the fussy, over officious, egotistical referee who officiated the match exactly as the home fans asked him to. In a frenetic opening, United nearly drew first blood when Gallas` miskick allowed Nani to probe into the Arsenal penalty area, only for Bacary Sagna to deny him with an excellent last ditch challenge. The Gunners then created their first chance of the match on the counter attack, as Arshavin played the ball into van Persie; he twisted past Vidic only to see Evra brilliantly deflect his shot over. From the resulting corner Foster- United`s great weak link- could only flap a corner into the path of the onrushing Arshavin, whose sliced shot rose inches wide of the top corner. United roared forwards in response with Evra beating two Arsenal players before Gallas cynically took him down on the edge of the area. Rooney curled the free kick just wide. From our angle in the South East corner, the ball had looked destined for the top corner.
But Arsenal were beginning to get a stranglehold on the game- with Mike Dean filling in admirably for Rio Ferdinand with some excellent defending for United. Firstly, when van Persie was clipped on the right hand edge of the penalty area by Evra, Dean performed brilliantly to plead myopia. Minutes later, van Persie went up for an aerial challenge with Vidic, the ball broke loose on the edge of United`s area but as the Dutchman tried to run for it, Vidic hauled him down to the ground. Dean was again on hand with Wengeresque levels of selective vision. Of course, van Persie then got frustrated and was silly to run to the other end of the pitch and execute a hard tackle on Giggs. We can`t have the player of the year being challenged like that and Dean was once again on hand with the yellow card, administering justice with admirable bias. Dean was in no mood for compromising subtlety, he was being flagrant again when Sagna`s cross found Arshavin on the back post, the Russian jinked inside Fletcher and was mowed to the ground with the ball a stationary and innocent bystander. No penalty apparently. The cost of Eduardo`s belly flop on Wednesday and the resulting media furore being made clear. However, Fletcher`s idiotic tackle simply served to prompt Arshavin into life. You wouldn`t like him when he`s angry. Denilson played the ball into him thirty five yards from goal, a measure of his quality was instantly apparent when the United defence backed off with fear etched across their features and Arshavin sent a thirty yard exocet into the top corner with minimal back lift. "He`s five foot four, he`s five foot fooooour, we`ve got Arshavin, fuck Adebayor" came the cry from the visiting throng. Meanwhile Dean saw fit to lecture Arshavin about his celebration. Putting one`s finger to one`s lips before running to your manager is somehow a lecturable offence? Maybe Dean was upset that Arshavin had upset his betting coupon? United pressed in the last minutes of the half for an equaliser, a goalmouth scramble ensuing after Diaby had cleared Vidic`s header off the line, but Arsenal survived until half time a goal to the good.
We had been here before of course, playing well and leading against our closer rivals. However, the question abounded would we have the psychological resources to hold out? Something we`ve singularly failed to do over the last three years. We would have our answer within nineteen minutes of the restart. Arsenal began the second half with zip and purpose and should have buried the game. Firstly, when Arshavin burst past the terminally slow Vidic and sent in a low cross from the by-line, van Persie prodded towards goal from close range, but Foster reacted excellently to flick the ball out with his left boot. Arsenal were in down the left again sixty seconds later; Clichy`s cross found Eboue unmarked at the back post but he lacked composure and completely bottled the opportunity. His inability to be emollient at a crucial time was a portent of things to come. With United not really threatening, Giggs played an excellent curved ball into the United area, Rooney chased at a tight angle from goal with Gallas for company, yet Almunia still felt the need to rush out at Rooney`s feet and take him down. Clear penalty, no doubt about it. Did Rooney look for it? Probably, he invited contact and Almunia was stupid enough to acquiesce- there is no rule saying a striker has to move out of the way when a goalkeeper has a rush of blood to the head. Rooney stepped up and steered the penalty home for the equaliser. However, Arsenal were perhaps unfortunate not to reassert their lead swiftly. When Evra swiped out at Diaby on the corner of the penalty area, van Persie sent a dipping free kick into the area which Foster badly misjudged, allowing it to sail over his head and off the crossbar.
However, having already shot ourselves in the foot, the Gunners would this time cock the pistol and place it firmly to the temple. Denilson`s foul on Fletcher over on United`s right hand side yielded a free kick. Giggs swung the ball into the area and inexplicably, under no pressure whatsoever, Diaby decided to turn and head the ball into his own net. He did not seem to attempt to elevate the ball over the bar and why he did not head the ball upwards and outwards I`m not sure I will ever know. The Theatre of Dreams had taken on a Vaudevillian air as the stridulous chimes of United fans cheering pierced our ears again. It was a shame because Diaby had actually had a very decent game and looked more likely to create anything than van Persie, whilst Arshavin spent about 80 minutes of the match walking with his hands on his hips. It is telling that United put most of their attacks through Valencia on our left, so aware were they of Arshavin`s unwillingness to track back. It is perhaps telling that in possibly the only time in the game when Arshavin did try to sprint to latch into a van Persie pass, he pulled his hamstring. He`s clearly a stunningly gifted player who can wander in and out of games and pull rabbits out of hats as he did yesterday- despite looking disinterested he can spring into life. However, this is pretty much how Adebayor spent his last season at Arsenal, registering on the score sheet before proceeding to stand around with his hands on his hips for 89 minutes. But Diaby`s own goal was symptomatic of the fact that when the pressure is on, Arsenal go all Kurt Cobain on our arses and self destruct spectacularly. We have been told persistently that the players will learn from the last three seasons of failure in big games, but as I pointed out in the summer, the players only have experience of defeat in big matches which can`t be helpful.
Diaby did attempt to make amends, picking his way through to the edge of the area, exchanging passes with van Persie, before firing wide in front of goal. The chance had come too soon after his own goal and his head was still all over the place. Had the opportunity arrived five minutes later when he had calmed down, I think he might have buried it. Arsenal had Eboue deservedly booked for diving, before Bendtner and Eduardo were introduced. Eduardo was roundly booed by the same supporters that spent six years singing 'Viva Ronaldo.` Work that one out. The two substitutes nearly dovetailed beautifully when Bendtner sent a wicked cross into the area which Eduardo just failed to connect with. You`ve the feeling that if Bendtner had been in the box himself, he might well have buried that. United looked to threaten on the break away, with Berbatov and Nani comically slicing good chances wide. Arsenal then had a goal disallowed when Ramsey (for some reason introduced for Arshavin instead of Wilshere- Ramsey is an excellent prospect but I fancy Wilshere is more likely to get you a goal?) crossed for a clearly offside Gallas, the ball broke for van Persie who lashed it home but the flag had been erect for sometime. In his frustration, Wenger kicked a water bottle. The Fourth Official decided there was some kind of new rule meaning violent conduct against inanimate objects is now a sending off. The bottle was not kicked at anyone and did not endanger the crowd or any player. However, Dean, keen to be star of the show, sent him to the stands. A referee`s number one responsibility on a football pitch is to ensure the safety of all participants. Dean sent the Arsenal manager into a throng of Manchester United fans. That sums up everything you need to know about this unctuous excuse for an official. As for the game, we can take heart from the fact that we played very well for long periods and without Fabregas, Nasri, Walcott and Rosicky, we were still able to create problems for the Champions. However, our lack of composure when pressurised in these games comes to the fore again as our experience of persistently losing in these situations aids our opponents. Wenger spoke after the match about his players lacking maturity and calmness in these situations, but Almunia is 32 and Diaby is 24, these are not young boys anymore. The up side is that at this stage of the season, the defeat will not have terminal consequences, United lost to us last year and at the beginning of the 2006-07 season and were not unduly affected. However, the feeling is that it`s just another case of history repeating.LD.
TEAM: 1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 15.DENILSON (9.Eduardo '71), 2.DIABY, 27.EBOUE (52.Bendtner '66), 23.ARSHAVIN (16.Ramsey '79), 11.v.PERSIE(c). Unused; 18.Silvestre, 19.Wilshere, 24.Mannone, 28.Gibbs.