By Richard Clarke
In the build-up to this game, Arsène Wenger was asked who he felt would win the title. The Arsenal manager replied: "I have an idea but you won't believe me."
The Frenchman's position was obvious. He thought his side could somehow overhaul Manchester United's 15-point advantage at the top of the Premiership but did not want to be labelled over-optimistic.
No-one will doubt him now.
Of course, Arsenal are still 12 points behind Sir Alex Ferguson's men but the manner of the revival on Sunday suggests they cannot be discounted.
Wayne Rooney put the visitors ahead seven minutes after half-time with a stooping header from Patrice Evra's pacy cross. The home side hammered on the Manchester United door after that but it seemed to be bolted shut.
Hope appeared to be all but extinguished before Robin Van Persie slid home the equaliser at the far post with seven minutes left then, deep into injury time, Thierry Henry planted a stunning header past Edwin van der Sar.
Having completed an incredible comeback in this game, Wenger's faith in side doing something similar in the Premiership will be doubled.
We shall see.
There were three changes but no surprises in the Arsenal line-up. Eboue was fit after an ankle problem so he took over from Justin Hoyte at right back. Mathieu Flamini filled the midfield berth vacated by the suspended Gilberto. Van Persie had picked up an ankle injury in training this week and his inclusion on the bench only came after a fitness test on Saturday. As a result, Emmanuel Adebayor, scorer of the winner at Old Trafford in September, was drafted alongside Henry.
This was the sort of game for which Emirates Stadium had been built. Manchester United and Arsenal had jostled for elbow room at the top of the Premiership for a decade. Ferguson's side were leading right now and Chelsea's defeat at Liverpool a day earlier handed them the chance to extend their advantage.
Privately Wenger felt Arsenal were still in the hunt but in his pre-match press conference even the Frenchman admitted defeat this afternoon would finally relegate them to also-rans.
The visitors had much more purpose in the opening stages. However the optimism of their approach play floundered once they reached the edge of the Arsenal area. Toure and Senderos were rocks throughout the first half.
The nearest the visitors would come before injury time was when Ryan Giggs fired over a frustrated shot from distance in the opening stages.
Henry thumped an equally speculative shot into the chest of Edwin van der Sar just before the quarter-hour. Then Namanja Vidic nodded over from Giggs' corner,
Hleb robbed Scholes in the midfield, Arsenal broke down the right and eventually Rosicky hacked over the bar.
Finally the home side were starting the find their feet. Fabregas' fizzing shot was deflected for a corner then Adebayor arched a lingering cross for Henry at the far post. It found the Frenchman's head but he could only produce the tamest of headers.
In the 36th minute, Henry glided past Gary Neville in the area and tumbled to the floor. Referee Steve Bennett waved play on.
After that the opening period seemed set to meander to a modest conclusion. Giggs spurned a decent opportunity with a tame shot into Lehmann's arms then Henry hit a free-kick into the wall and the rebound at straight at Van der Sar.
However the drama of the half would be saved for the final seconds. Lehmann punched a corner to Rooney, who controlled the ball out side the area and returned it with venom. Arsenal's German keeper gymnastically tipped it over the bar for a corner. Giggs swung it into Henrik Larsson eight yards out and the Swedish striker produced a textbook header - directed downwards and towards the corner. Lehmann flung himself to his left and palmed the ball aside. The half time whistle blew before the cheers had subsided.
Fabregas thumped a long-range effort into the midriff of Van der Sar straight after the restart. It seemed that Arsenal had made the sharper start. But they would be undone on the counter-attack in the 52nd minute.
Ronaldo raced down the left and nudged the ball into the path of the overlapping Evra. The French full back whipped a fierce, flat cross into the area. It glanced off Toure's head and fell to the unmarked Rooney at the far post. The England striker gleefully converted with a diving header.
Fabregas' lofted shot nearly brought Arsenal level immediately then Tomas Rosicky cracked a shot wide in the 56th minute.
Then, just after Van Persie had come on, the Czech midfielder lifted a curling shot just past the far post.
All the urgency was now coming from Arsenal. Understandably, Manchester United opted for containment.
Adebayor nearly scrambled the ball home in the 73rd-minute melee. But the visitors may have added to their lead when Clichy denied the sliding Larsson at the near post then Vidic slammed a header wide.
It was starting to look a forlorn task for Arsenal. Then Rosicky wriggled clear on the right and crossed in the area. Henry miscued his effort but the ball ran on for the sliding Van Persie to slam the ball high in the Manchester United net at the far post.
Arsenal had the bit between their teeth but you could still see little chance of a winner.
Yet in the dying seconds Eboue sent over a pin-point cross from the right and Henry rose at the near post to plant his header high past Van der Sar.
- Eboue 90
- Toure Yellow Card
- Flamini 79
- Hleb 67
- Henry Goal!
- Hoyte 90
- Julio Baptista 79
- van Persie 67 Goal!
- Van der Sar
- Evra Yellow Card
- Ronaldo 90 Yellow Card
- Giggs Yellow Card
- Rooney Goal!
- Larsson 81
- Heinze 90
- Saha 81