By Richard Clarke
This game began the afternoon in incessant rain and ended in bright, brilliant sunlight.
Ditto Arsenal’s season.
At his pre-match press conference, Arsène Wenger had faced an inquisition about his side’s title chances and you got the feeling the obituaries would have been written had they slumped to a weak defeat against the champions.
In the end, they came away with a hard-fought and thoroughly deserved victory that could breathe new life into Arsenal’s season.
Samir Nasri got both goals. The first came in the 22nd minute via a deflection, the second via superb Arsenal passing just after half time.
Manchester United had ample possession and their build-up play was expert. However they spurned the chances they created. Their only goal came 45 seconds from the end of normal time via Rafael’s volley when they were going for broke.
This time it was Arsenal who picked the pocket of a side who had played the beautiful game...well... beautifully.
Of course, one great game cannot make a season. Arsenal’s three points here only replaces the ones lost so badly at Stoke last week.
But with everyone looking for Wenger’s team to respond, this had been an emphatic answer.
Ahead of the game, Wenger knew he had five players out but he was due to make late calls over the fitness of another five.
In the end, Manuel Almunia (sickness) Bacary Sagna (ankle), Theo Walcott (shoulder), Mikael Silvestre (broken nose) and William Gallas (hamstring) were declared fit and started the game.
Only Emmanuel Adebayor (ankle), Emmanuel Eboue (knee), Robin van Persie (suspended), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) and Eduardo (broken leg) missed out.
Wenger brought in Abou Diaby to play just behind Nicklas Bendtner with Nasri and Walcott supplying width either side of Cesc Fabregas and Denilson in central midfield.
The back four was all-French, so Kolo Toure was left on the bench.
This is always a massive game but after Arsenal’s recent problems it appeared to have taken on seismic proportions. Given it was November, the points would not be decisive but Wenger’s men needed to make a statement of intent in the title race.
It would be a pivotal afternoon.
It nearly started in the worst possible fashion for Arsenal. With only 90 seconds Silvestre played a weak back pass to Almunia, who under pressure from Wayne Rooney, came out to collect with his hands. Anderson took the resulting free-kick from inside the area but the wall deflected it to Michael Carrick on the edge of the area. His bobbling shot wandered inches wide.
Manchester United had started with all the swagger we expected. They had the ball in the net in the eighth minute when Ronaldo crossed low from the right and Ji-Sung Park’s dummy allowed Rooney to shoot. Almunia palmed the ball out to Dimitar Berbatov who slotted home. Fortunately for Arsenal the Bulgarian had strayed offside.
By now the light shower of the morning had turned into a downpour. And Arsenal would have their fans singing in the rain.
In the 11th minute, Bendtner slammed a header just over from Clichy’s left-wing cross. Five minutes later Nasri sent over a similar opportunity but neither Diaby nor Bendtner could crane their heads enough to connect.
Perhaps Arsenal’s best chance before the goal came on the quarter-hour when Van de Sar’s weak punch fell to Diaby but his snap-shot was deflected wide.
The all-important strike would come a couple of minutes later, but not before Rooney had shot narrowly over after an ominously incisive Manchester United move.
The goal began when Patrice Evra fouled Sagna on the right-hand byline. Fabregas clipped it over to the far post where a clearance from Nemanja Vidic fell to Nasri. The Frenchman bought a lottery ticket by firing a low shot into the congested area. His numbers came up when the ball flicked off Gary Neville’s leg and flew past Van der Sar.
It was just what Arsenal needed but the job was nowhere near done. Park’s low shot forced the best out of Almunia and the visitors continued to pressure.
Eight minutes before the break Diaby steamrollered through only to be brought down by Michael Carrick. Howard Webb did not give a foul and replays proved he had been incorrect.
Right in front of us Arsenal were rebuilding the confidence that had been undermined in the past 10 days. They sustained pressure before the break and might have added to their lead when Walcott miskicked an effort just wide from Clichy’s cross.
This was fast becoming a throwback to Arsenal v Manchester United games a decade ago. It was helter-skelter and packed with incident.
Sagna, Gallas and Evra were all booked just before the break. You could see more yellow cards after the interval.
It was that kind of game.
And the opening few minutes of the second half suggested it just might be Arsenal’s day.
Around 90 seconds in, the home side passed and passed and passed until Fabregas fed Nasri on the edge of the area. The Frenchman lashed the ball home with relish.
The 21-year-old ran towards the touchline before being engulfed by his team-mates. It was a moment of unbridled joy.
However it was nearly shortlived. Park found Ronaldo at the far post and the winger’s sidefoot volley flew inches wide. A crucial moment.
While 1-0 was wonderful and 2-0 was terrific, neither had ended the argument. The visitors were on the attack for most of the afternoon, that said Almunia had not been overworked.
Diaby barged past Van der Sar to send a header just over but by now Arsenal were mostly working on the counter-attack. Manchester United were pushing forward in search of a lifeline.
Midway through the half Almunia needed lengthy treatment after Carrick, without malice, had caught him in the head when the ball ran loose from a corner.
By now Ferguson was searching for inspiration via his substitutes. Rafael, Ryan Giggs and Carlos Tevez were all on with 15 minutes left.
Although Manchester United were still pressing, Arsenal had a major shout for a penalty in the 74th minute when Vidic appeared to haul over Nasri as the French winger closed in on a hat-trick chance.
With 10 minutes left, Wenger made his own substitutions with Alex Song replacing Walcott and Fabianski coming on for the struggling Almunia.
The Pole had only caretaking to do really before picking the ball out of his net with 45 seconds left. Manchester United now had defenders in the area and one of them, Rafael, plundered a volley from just outside.
That came seconds before the fourth official announced six minutes of injury time.
It was time to scrap for Arsenal’s season. But in fact the home side would have the better chances, especially when Bendtner dribbled through and swivelled a shot over the bar.
The whistle blew soon afterwards.
Arsenal were back. But had they ever really gone away?
- Almunia 78
- Clichy Yellow Card
- Sagna Yellow Card
- Gallas Yellow Card
- Diaby 85
- Walcott 77
- Nasri Goal! Goal!
- Toure 85
- Song 77
- Fabianski 78
- Van der Sar
- Evra Yellow Card
- Neville 63
- Anderson 72
- Carrick Yellow Card
- Rooney 76
- Giggs 72
- Tevez 76
- Da Silva 63 Goal!