Manchester United 2 Arsenal 0
After a controversial Champions League exit at the Nou Camp, a trip to Old Trafford was hardly heading the list of desired destinations. But United had their own preoccupations with their second leg Champions League tie with Marseilles taking place on Tuesday and the wounds of consecutive defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool still fresh, the game felt more like who could conceal their wounds the best rather than flex their muscles. Our trip North (and back down South as it turns out) was blighted by the fact that we had to travel next to the four biggest arseholes I think I`ve ever chanced across in my life. Imagine being stuck in a lift with four Tim Lovejoys for nine hours. Amongst their witticisms that Djourou`s injury was the one bright spot of the day because he`s apparently the worst player ever to play for us. Figure that out.
My sister and brother in law were also able to make the journey North thanks to the increased allocation F.A. Cup games bring, so after a quiet drink with family and friends, we were ready to join the raucous 9,000 that consummately out sung Old Trafford from beginning to end. The team selections gave us cause for encouragement with United playing three defenders and Darron Gibson in their midfield- hardly the vintage of the Keane and Scholes days. With only Walcott and Fabregas missing, you felt this was as good a chance as Arsenal would ever have to win at Old Trafford. As it turns out, Cesc and Walcott were the two players we missed the most. Arsenal began the game brightly, United clearly set up to counter attack and look for the long ball to Rooney or Hernandez as we might have expected. But United`s execution was all shot and their balls into the channels failed to hit the mark. The Gunners bossed the opening exchanges but struggled to create anything concrete.
In fact, despite Arsenal`s territorial dominance, United almost scored with their first attack when Gibson showed neat feet to find Fabio on the left, he whipped in a cross and Rafael all too easily rose above Kieran Gibbs on the back post to head over. Arsenal responded when van Persie`s curler stung the palms of van der Sar. The Gunners were growing into the game and the home support were becoming restless. But for the cod psychoanalysis of "winning mentality" etc (which is shorthand for "I don`t really know why we didn`t win, so I`ll just wheel that old chestnut out and hope it makes me look vaguely perceptive"), we were principally guilty of giving a goal away when we were under no real pressure. Rafael found it all too easy to skip past Gibbs- who had a torrid afternoon, whilst Arshavin watched on idly- he was booed off by the away support when he was substituted. Gibson found Fabio, who in turn nudged the ball to Rooney. His first time cross saw Hernandez peel away from Djourou at the back post, Almunia made the save, but Gibbs and Koscielny were too stationary and Fabio was allowed to sweep the rebound into the roof of the net. United`s home record is such that losing a goal in such circumstances rather sets you up for defeat. Particularly when they`re playing seven defenders in their side.
Arsenal almost equalised instantaneously with one of the few moments of swift action they showed in the first half, rather than the labouring and agonising over possession. Nasri played an angled pass into van Persie, he let the ball run past him, which allowed him about the only millisecond Vidic gave anyone all afternoon, he used it to aim a first time shot for the bottom corner, only for van der Sar to claw the ball just wide. It was the story of our afternoon, on the rare occasions Vidic wasn`t hoovering up, van der Sar was in inspired form. From our point of view, the truth is we look too pedestrian creatively without Fabregas and lacked penetration without Walcott. From Nasri`s resulting corner, van Persie rose above Smalling but headed just wide. At half time it was hard to be displeased with anything Arsenal had done, you just felt they needed to do it a bit quicker. Seconds into the second half; that impetus in the final third would be given to us by a centre back.
Laurent Koscielny drove forwards, finding Wilshere. He used van Persie as a sounding board to flick the ball back to Arshavin, who played Koscielny in in a promising position in the right channel. His attempted cutback led to a scramble where the ball cannoned off van der Sar`s legs, ten van Persie`s and back into the path of Koscielny. But his snapshot was brilliantly tipped round the post by van der Sar. Two minutes later, the importance of that save would be crystallized. Rafael once again went past Gibbs all too easily and once again Arshavin was only too happy to give his left back no support, Rafael`s cross almost found Hernandez but for a timely block by Djourou, the ball ricocheted into the air and Wayne Rooney was on hand to head it in off the post. When it`s not your day, it`s just not your day. Arsenal poured forwards but found United in no mood to concede ground. When the Gunners did progress beyond the midfield, Vidic was stretching tentacle like limbs out to block through balls left, right and centre. We missed Fabregas` precision.
That said, we worked van der Sar hard in the final throes and had the game come back to 2-1, you felt there would really have been some store in it for us. Gibbs saw his cross headed out by first Smalling, then Brown, only to drop to Nasri on the volley, but he hit his shot into the ground and van der Sar saved. On a luckier day, it takes a nick in a packed box and causes the keeper a bigger headache. Wilshere, the picture of perpetual movement, clipped a ball into the box for substitute Marouane Chamakh, but his header touched the crossbar. Arsenal removed two of their principle problems. Diaby is a vastly talented player, but I`ve taken to calling him 'Scarecrow`, because every time he gets the ball, I always sing Ray Bolger`s "If I Only Had A Brain" song from Wizard of Oz. He slows the game down far too much, far too often. It`s been five and a half years since he signed for Arsenal and I think I`ve lost faith that he can be taught. Arshavin is 30 years old and probably too old to be taught, but there are games and times where the "I`m a lazy genius and can do it all at half tilt" shtick gets tiresome. He can surely only now be an impact sub once Walcott regains fitness. How ironic, given that for many years Theo was the one that stood accused of only being trusted for short period of games. Both Diaby and Arshavin were booed off by the away support, but at least one of the replacements, Aaron Ramsey, received uproarious applause.
Arsenal continued to plug away, as Sagna`s inch perfect delivery was met by a Chamakh header, but van der Sar was again on hand to make the save. Thereafter, Rosicky`s shot from the edge of the box moved the veteran Dutch keeper into action again, but the rebound fell to Evra rather than Chamakh. When you have the run of the ball blah, blah, blah etc. Evra was then replaced to the sound of a resounding ear bashing from the travelling contingent, he gave as good as he got to the away section. Fair enough really. His replacement Scholes came on to perform his usual hatchet job with two terrible tackles and the referee, as per usual, bent over and smiled, only too happy to take the Scholes meat injection like every other referee in the land. The United fans even taunted the referee with "we`re Man United, we do what we want." Surely the fact that this chant is such a mainstay for United fans rings some alarm bells for officiating in this country. I mean, they take the piss out of the referee whilst he`s in the act of taking a shafting from the Glazer Boys? Are referees not just a little humiliated by that? You`ve got 70,000 people tucking a fiver into your thong, slapping your arse and demanding two sugars in their tea Chris Foy, how about developing a spine?
Whilst Foy mislaid his backbone, Johan Djourou`s collarbone was soon to implode and end his season. As United counter attacked, Giggs found Rooney; his tuck back saw Hernandez prod towards goal, only for Almunia to prod the ball away. As Sagna rushed to clear, he unwittingly stood on Djourou and around seven minutes of treatment followed. As he was treated, van der Sar was given a standing ovation by the United fans, which tells a story. Though Wenger had it right when he lamented post match, "We were punished by a United team that were more clinical than us." We had to soldier on with ten men for the second time in four days. Such is life for us at the moment. Many seem to have written the game off yesterday as a typical example of United cornering us and pouncing when it mattered. I don`t quite think it was as simple as that. United set up to play on the counter and made the best of their chances, that much is true. Where we were guilty was of conceding the first goal when there was little pressure from a United side that were struggling to even hold the ball when they had it. The ball isn`t running for us at the moment. I recall a similar period back in 2002; after we lost a long unbeaten run at Everton we went on to lose four in a row. That spell was broken by an outrageously fortuitous Steve Marlet own goal to give us a narrow victory at Fulham. That`s the sort of tonic we need now. That said, it is hard to see Arsenal beating United at home had they put a strong team out whilst we staffed our midfield with Gibbs, Diaby and Eboue. But, we`ve just got to get on with it. We are in a very good position to win the league without the distractions that United have, it`s up to us to take that chance by the throat and keep our season from steering off track. A win at the Hawthorns next Saturday is a matter of urgency.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 6.KOSCIELNY, 28.GIBBS, 15.DENILSON (29.Chamakh `59), 2.DIABY (16.Ramsey `72), 19.WILSHERE, 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN (7.Rosicky `72), 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused: 18.Squillaci, 22.Clichy, 27.Eboue, 55.Shea.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA