Arsenal 1 Manchester United 0
The world suddenly feels like a lighter, brighter place today. With the criminal waste of tax payers` money taking place in London on Friday, we were into the third day of a beautifully sunny four day weekend. Though our own title chances have rather faded off over the horizon, a game against Manchester United never feels like a low key affair. It rather felt like it was the first day of next season and a chance to restore some confidence and finish the season strongly. Having slain Chelsea and Barcelona in our own backyard and comprehensively taken Manchester City apart at Eastlands, Arsenal knew they had the quality to win the game. The feeling of a new era beginning was perhaps amplified by the exclusion of Cesc Fabregas from the starting line up due to injury, with Aaron Ramsey being entrusted with the midfield playmaker role. I have to say that that made me fearful upon entering the ground; Ramsey had yet to look sharp whilst Cesc has been something of a one man band of late.
But if anything, his absence seemed to imbue the team with the realisation that they were going to have to stand up and take responsibility without Fabregas cutting their meat for them. Ramsey looked something like the player we were cruelly denied of last February. Another interesting footnote of the last few games is that Jens Lehmann has remained on the bench despite the fact that the manager has confirmed Manuel Almunia`s fitness. Arsenal`s starting line up was the youngest fielded in a Premiership game this season at 23.9 years average age. The home side began the game quickly, with Walcott`s movement in particular causing United problems. Van Persie sent a pass to Theo on the right, he sent in a low cross which was initially intercepted by Ferdinand; Vidic found the loose ball and cleared it only as far as Wilshere inside the area, but he rushed his shot and ended up dragging it wide. Next it was Arsenal`s left hand side that caused United panic, Clichy sending in a searching low cross which Walcott toe ended over under the attentions of Vidic from close range.
Wilshere has traditionally swapped with Song in the holding role this year, but yesterday it seemed Song sat on Rooney and it was Ramsey and Wilshere who swapped in behind van Persie. Wilshere collected a Nasri pass on the left hand edge of the box, drove at Vidic before sending a teasing low cross towards Walcott on the back post which Evra cut out in the nick of time. Arsenal`s domination was rife and the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra were left to perform last ditch heroics, and Chris Foy came into his own for United, committing three excellent block tackles on Arsenal players in the first half, which made him more effective than Michael Carrick. In particular he was on top form when Wilshere ran at Vidic again, Vidic rugby tackled Wilshere on the edge of the area and Foy apparently saw no infringement. Which begs the question what in blue f**k is he doing officiating at this level? It struck me that it was the ever hateful Wayne Rooney that was running the show, barking at the referee to issue cards every single time a foul was called.
United were obviously looking to play on the break and that tactic almost paid dividends when Fabio skipped past Koscielny in the area and looked for a pull back to Hernandez, but Sagna was on hand to intercept brilliantly. A moment symptomatic of his season. Then came Foy`s most telling interception of all, when Ramsey spun the ball out to Walcott on the right, Walcott sent in a fizzing cross which Vidic clearly punched away from the head of van Persie, yet no penalty was given. If the referee didn`t see it, which, I repeat, if he didn`t, I have to ask why he`s officiating a game of this ilk, then one can only marvel at what the Linesman was looking at. There was no tangle of bodies or throng of players, just an untroubled view of Vidic blatantly denying a clear goal scoring opportunity. A horrible decision from the officials, who left the pitch at half time with the booing of 57,000 Gooners ringing in their ears. At half time, a knock to the thigh of Samir Nasri meant he was to be replaced by Andrey Arshavin. Ferguson had targeted Arshavin successfully as a weak defensive link in the F.A. Cup defeat at Old Trafford, so it`s perhaps indicative that Ferguson sent Valencia on for Anderson early in the second half to try and exploit any gaps on Arsenal`s left. Ferguson hadn`t banked on Arshavin apparently being possessed by the spirit of Ray Parlour.
United still weren`t providing much of a threat, though Rooney`s free kick stung Szczesny`s palms, whilst Evra`s follow up flew into the side netting. Ferguson`s tactical folly in putting Valencia on and moving Park Ji Sung into central midfield was exposed instantly as Ramsey found van Persie careering away on the right. Van Persie teased Fabio, before spotting that Ramsey had marched into the United area untracked, van Persie`s pull back was rewarded by a sweet, first time guided finish by Aaron Ramsey into Edwin van der Sar`s bottom corner. United reacted by upping the tempo, whilst Arsenal looked to guard their lead. Nani`s corner caused hearts to leap into mouths when Vidic rose for a free header, but headed wide. Foy was again obliging for the hosts, booking Alex Song for one of the cleaner block tackles you`ll ever see. It was Bobby Moore-esque, so crisp and clean that the ball stopped dead. To blow for a foul, let alone a yellow card in such a circumstance is to take umbrage at the laws of physics. Again, another startling example of a man not fit for purpose to do his job.
United began to apply the pressure, with Berbatov replacing the ineffective Hernandez and Rooney still being suffocated by the presence of the ubiquitous Alex Song. Though Rooney did break free of the shackles once as he contested a ball in midfield with Song and Ramsey, the ball ricocheted nicely for him, he teed Nani up on the left, but Szczesny closed the angle to make a good save. But the Gunners were looking threatening on the counter attack too and Ramsey and Wilshere combined to set Walcott free down the right hand side and his low cross was slid into the side netting by van der Sar. It was Wilshere who was next to lead the breakaway, teeing up van Persie on the left but his chipped cross evaded Arshavin on the back post. Then it was Arsenal`s turn to benefit from official incompetence as Rooney clipped a pass to Owen in the penalty area and Clichy clearly tripped him, but Foy, I think knowingly, evened up his first half error.
Despite the presence of tired legs, Arsenal defended well and hung on for a deserved victory. Players that usually hurt us, Park, Rooney, Nani, found themselves well shackled, whilst they hadn`t devised a strategy to nullify Wilshere and Ramsey swapping positions in attack. For Ramsey to score the winning goal was a real fairytale and it`s impossible not to be chuffed for him today given the 14 months he has gone through. Another winning goal next week would complete the happy ending you feel! Arsenal deserved their win with a mixture of substance and style. I spoke last week of reconnecting with the basics. They passed the ball well, they defended resolutely and when their chance came, they took it. No major injury time panics, no self destruction. I do hope however, that people aren`t quick to jump on the "who needs Fabregas?" bandwagon, it will take more than one game to convince me we`re better off without him versus the mountains of times he`s dug us out of holes single handedly. But hopefully this game can help players to feel a little more belief in themselves, so the next time the chips are down, they won`t hand the baton to the captain and shrink in his shadow. The win might have come a little too late for our title chances, but if you can`t enjoy a game and a win like that, then one would have to conclude that you actively enjoy misery.LD.
53.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU (18.Squillaci `69), 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE, 16.RAMSEY, 14.WALCOTT (27.Eboue `79), 8.NASRI (23.Arshavin H/T), 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused; 13.Lehmann, 28.Gibbs, 29.Chamakh, 52.Bendtner.
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