Ji Sung Park produced a brilliant improvised header to dash Arsenal’s hopes of keeping top spot as Manchester United leapfrogged their way to the top of the Barclays Premier League with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford.
It was a brilliant atmosphere at The Theatre of Dreams to begin with, the Chilean miners being the guests of honour. The build-up was huge, with this match being touted as a possible title decider what with Chelsea’s recent decline. Even David Beckham was seen enjoying a laugh with Gary Neville in the stands, the two obviously hoping to witness at least something reminiscent of the feisty United-Arsenal clashes they once used to be part of. Beckham had also gone to the extent of sporting the middle-parting hairstyle he used to wear back then.
But the match just exemplified the nature of the Premier League this season, brilliant in flashes but lacking in the overall quality that we expect to see from two top-placed sides.
The travelling Gunners supporters must have been scratching their heads in disbelief when the Arsenal starting eleven were announced. Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott were all on the bench, with onus on Tomas Rosicky and the young Jack Wilshere.
Arsene Wenger also gave a Premier League debut to 20-year-old Wojciech Szczesny between the sticks. The Polish shot-stopper had just made three League Cup appearances prior to this.
Szczesny made some nervous fields and clearances before finally settling into the groove. Nani tested the young keeper with a 40-yard free-kick in the 13th minute, but luckily for Szczesny it went straight to him.
Nani had another shot on goal soon after, when a half-cleared Darren Fletcher cross fell on the path of the Portuguese international, who took it on the volley and blasted it marginally wide of the post.
Nani’s persistence finally paid off in the 41st minute when his cross took the slightest of deflections off Gael Clichy’s foot to force Ji Sung Park to make a tremendous improvisation as the ball bounced off the South Korean’s head past the outstretched hands of Szczesny into goal.
Lucky? Maybe. But that goal would have made a certain Chicharito on the bench very proud, who produced a similar effort against Stoke City not so long ago.
Luckily for Arsenal, the goal came just before half-time, which meant that the Gunners didn’t have the chance to get demoralized as they usually get after such occurrences. It left them with a chance to regroup and come back all guns blazing in the second half.
The Gunners did show some intent early in the second half, with their best effort on goal coming when Edwin Van der Sar parried Samir Nasri’s attempt on goal onto the path of Marouane Chamakh. The Moroccan centre-forward’s eyes would have lit up with an open goal in front of him, but United captain Nemanja Vidic flew in to keep his side in the lead.
United had a terrific game at the back, with Vidic and Ferdinand being rock-solid to say the least. Van der Sar was a mere bystander throughout the match.
The same couldn’t be said about the Arsenal centre halves Squillaci and Koscielny, who looked uncomfortable against the lone Wayne Rooney up-front.
Rooney had a good game overall, and had the chance to top it with a goal when Clichy unintentionally handled the ball in the box, only for the linesman to signal a penalty.
Rooney’s only two goals in this campaign had come from penalties and Stretford End was already celebrating as he lined up to take the kick. But the Stretford End faithful were rewarded only with a brush with the match ball as Rooney ballooned his effort over the bar.
Rooney did not let his spirits down and tested Szczesny soon after with a clever chip. But the Pole managed to get a hand to it.
Arsene Wenger brought on the trio of Fabregas, van Persie and Walcott to inject some pace and urgency into the last third of the match. But, United’s defense proved impregnable as they held on to their lead and extended their unbeaten run in the league.
Arsenal’s sheer lack of quality was epitomized yet again as the Gunners surrendered their lead in the title race. Samir Nasri, of whom big things were expected, was invisible. And Arshavin, who is regarded to be a big-match player, was uncharacteristically wasteful with his opportunities.
Arsene Wenger was content with his team’s performance, and this is exactly the reason why he hasn’t been able to bring silverware to the club in five years. It’ll take a thorough wracking of the grey matter to remember when last the Gunners beat either United or Chelsea, and it’s the losses in these big games that lose you the title. Ask United.
Manchester United themselves were not even at a fraction of their form when they demolished Blackburn 7-1 two weeks back and need to find some consistency if they want to win back the title. Grinding out results and sitting on top by default is certainly not champions-class.
Final verdict: A pretty mundane top-of-the-table clash. We want Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira back!