Manchester United 1 Arsenal 0
Thanks to the feckless dregs at Sky Sports, it was another obscure kick off for yet another away match. I'm not really sure where the appeal lay in a broader marketing sense for Sky by putting this on a Monday night, but I'm sure one of the stuffed suits- probably some Home Counties bod named Jeremy- had their reasons. Still, it was a good excuse to bag a couple of days off work, so thanks to the dark overlords at sky towers. I salute you dark overlords and offer up my alcohol blighted blood as a sacrifice. Chin, chin. Rumours abound as we made the journey North that Wojciech Szczesny would be handed his debut in light of a leg injury to Fabianski, meanwhile we awaited news as to whether our captain would be fit to take part.
Following an untroubled journey up the M1, we were ready to sample Old Trafford for the first time in 16 months. With the venue's propensity for holding games other than Manchester United v Arsenal, I don't ever recall such a pregnant pause between trips there. As we supped overpriced, watery Worthingtons in the concourse, the rumours were confirmed that Szczesny started in goal, whilst Cesc and van Persie started on the bench. The game began and it was United who were swifter out of the blocks, establishing a high octane pressing game from the start, allowing us no time to build any rhythm in our passing from the back. However, though United penned Arsenal in somewhat, they didn't create much. Rooney was allowed to take down van der Sar's long clearance, twist and test Szczesny's nerve with a long range shot. Koscielny and Squillaci didn't allow Rooney anything approaching that amount of good grace for the rest of the game, marshalling him fairly comfortably. The home side might well have broken the deadlock when Flecther's cross was met with a poor headed clearance from Squillaci, falling invitingly for Nani, who for once didn't greet the arrival of the ball with a triple pike and a look of teary eyed toddler anguish on his face, instead fizzing a low volley just wide with Szczesny well beaten.
The game drifted rather soporifically, with the likes of Arshavin, Nasri and Rooney struggling to influence the game. The midfield was something of a spaghetti junction, the ball breaking loose due to poor passing or poor control. The triumvirate of Wilshere, Song and Rosicky never got a handle on the game. Rosicky looked caught between his defensive conscience and his supposed adoption of the Cesc role and ended up neither attacking or defending with any great purpose. Wilshere struggled both with his footwear and with Fletcher and Anderson snapping at his heels and denying him space. It was a war of attrition until the 41st minute, Nani danced down the right with Clichy in attendance, Nani's cross took a wicked deflection off of Clichy's heel, looping over the heads of Squillaci and Koscielny. Park Ji Sung readjusted his body and craned his neck, agonisingly heading the ball in off the post. It was a cruel blow, neither side deserved a goal. United began to turn the screw as half time loomed, Webb complied with the constant haranguing from United players as he very harshly booked Chamakh. Nani's deplorable amateur dramatics hoodwinking the gullible Webb into the caution. Evra had harangued Webb three minutes earlier after Chamakh breathed on him, whilst Darren Fletcher stopped just short of physically assaulting Webb without reprisal. A far harsher indictment of the referee's lack of gall, came not from the visiting fans that serenaded him with 'Fergie's rent boy', but rather the home fans that gleefully chanted, 'We're Man United and we do what we want.' Having the piss taken out of you by the very masters you're pleasing is about as stark an indictment on one's character as it is possible to receive.
But at half time you felt this was a big test for Arsenal, shut out by United's defence quite comprehensively, they would need to find a way through and maintain a semblance of solidarity at the back too. Rosicky dragged a shot just wide as the Gunners promised to begin the half in good spirits. Meanwhile, Szczesny was called into action when Rooney's pass ricocheted to Anderson in the area, but the big Pole was out swiftly at Anderson's feet to smother. A great piece of anticipation.
Arsenal soon carved out their only gilt edged chance of the game. Nasri jinked into some space on the edge of the area, his low shot was clawed out by van der Sar and Chamakh was swift to the follow up, but the ball was just behind him and as he dug it goalwards, Nemanja Vidic came back with an excellent block. Chamakh might possibly have feinted inside and opened up the angle, but the ball was behind him and not really in his control. Wenger sent for reinforcements with van Persie and Fabregas replacing Wilshere and Rosicky. van Persie was erroneously placed into a central midfield position that I hope never to see him in again. Our best finisher should be in the penalty area, not scouring the centre circle. That said, he rather fluffed his lines in the box when Sagna's delivery for once evaded the water tight duo of Vidic and Ferdinand and found van Persie, but the arrival of the ball came as a surprise and he couldn't quite swing his leg and yield the contact that would have drawn a certain goal.
But with Arsenal pressing to little avail, United had the chance to bury the game in the 72nd minute. Nani took on Clichy and Clichy fell to the floor, the linesman furiously flagged for a penalty. I have seen no highlights and genuinely could not have been worse positioned to see it, the infringement took place in the South West corner of the ground and we were in the North East corner, so I cannot make any claims about the award one way or the other. What I can say, is that Rooney's resulting run up and spot kick were even worse than Rosicky's effort at Sunderland. The ball sailed a good three yards over the bar and high into the Stretford End. The Gunners were still in it, but United's defence was still on top, with two banks of four in front of Arsenal's slow, deliberate passing. United looked for long balls on the break and nearly brought reward when Rooney went scampering away onto van der Sar's long kick, he clipped the ball seemingly over Szczesny from the edge of the area, but Szczesny revealed go, go Gadget arms to tip the ball away from danger. Arsenal could only muster one last attempt in injury time, Chamakh headed Nasri's cross down to Walcott, who had time and space for the volley but inexplicably leaned back under no pressure and skied his volley. An appalling piece of technique from a top flight player.
In the end, it was a game with little to stir the soul, the defences were very much on top. United got themselves a goal through slightly fortuitous circumstances, but they took their big chance. Chamakh couldn't take ours. The difference between the teams was that ultimately, we defended very well, United defended superbly. The reason United are able to keep us at arm's length at the moment is not sue to any tactical deficiency, or lack of winning mentality or any other prescribed nonsense. They are just a slightly better team than we are. We couldn't trouble Ferdinand and Vidic. Most teams don't trouble those two when they play together. It's not as if United carved us open at will, but they got themselves a goal to sit back on and they did it expertly. The game rather sums up our position, we're the third best team in England, probably the 5-6th best in Europe. Whilst we all want to be numero uno, it's no reason to get in a hot bath and open our wrists. The game and the result were blows to our title challenge but not mortal wounds. There's plenty to suggest we'll have our say in the race. I don't expect us to win it and never really did, just that we'd be there or there abouts. For us to win it we'll likely have to flat track bully our way to it, but the way results have gone this season, it's more viable this year than it ever has been. We're down, but we're not out.LD.
53.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE (4.Fabregas '62), 7.ROSICKY(c) (10.v.Persie '62), 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN (14.Walcott '76), 29.CHAMAKH. Unused: 15.Denilson, 20.Djourou, 21.Fabianski, 52.Bendtner.