By Richard Clarke
William Gallas scored a dramatic injury-time equaliser to force a 2-2 draw with Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on Saturday and keep Arsenal top of the table.
The hosts were staring at their first defeat this season before their captain slammed home a volley at the far post with seconds left. It was batted out by Edwin van der Sar but the assistant referee rightly ruled the ball was well behind the Manchester United goal-line.
It was a breathless, buoyant end to a game that took time to catch fire but bristled with high-quality, high-pressure football throughout the second half.
Manchester United had taken the lead on the stroke of half-time when Gallas inadvertently slid a low cross from Ronaldo past his own keeper.
Arsenal barged their way back in the game three minutes after the restart when Bacary Sagna seized upon hesitancy in the visiting defence to set up Fabregas.
The visitors thought they had won it seven minutes from time when Patrice Evra's run drew Manuel Almunia and Ronaldo slammed the ball home from close-range.
Arsenal were beyond frantic and deep into desperation when Gallas appeared at the far post to sidefoot home the leveller.
The goal set a new club record of 25 games without defeat in all competitions. They have not lost since April 7, nearly seven months.
Wenger retained the side that had come back to take a well-deserved point at Liverpool last Sunday.
That meant Alex Hleb, one of the Premier League's in-form players, lent striking support to Emmanuel Adebayor. Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Eboue occupied the wide positions.
Perhaps the best indication of the strength in the Arsenal side was seen on the bench. Jens Lehmann, Lassana Diarra, Eduardo, Gilberto and Theo Walcott had a collective 139 caps between them.
Manchester United paired the impressive Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez up front. The duo had helped their team to amass four goals in each of their last four games. Make no mistake, Arsenal may have been leading the table but Manchester United's form had been every bit as impressive this season.
That had been illustrated on the eve of game when Wenger stated that this fixture had regained all its old value. For all but the last two years this had been THE key fixture since the Premier League began.
With a quarter of the current campaign gone and these two sides only separated by goals scored at the top of the table, for once this fixture's importance was likely to match the pre-match hype. Consequently, Emirates Stadium was electric ahead of this lunchtime kick-off.
Arsenal had the better of the opening 10 minutes yet their only chance came when Gael Clichy crossed for Adebayor to scoop a header wide.
Seconds before that Ronaldo had nodded Ryan Giggs' corner against the outside of the post. It would not have counted though, the Portuguese winger had clambered all over Mathieu Flamini to execute the effort.
Despite Arsenal pressure it was Ronaldo who conjured the next chance in the 16th minute. He sent a sweeping, low cross to far post which Sagna failed to deal with decisively. A surprised Giggs could only scuff the ball wide off his knee.
The Welshman swivelled to send a long-range effort over Almunia's bar midway through the half. But in truth it was an isolated effort.
With a quarter of the match gone, we'd seen passion and fervour in abundance but little in the way of flowing football. The quality of the two teams was not in doubt but, at this stage, both appeared to be prioritising not losing over winning.
When Toure strode forward just before the half-hour, exchanged passes with Rosicky and thumped an effort high over the bar, it represented Arsenal's best effort so far. They had been probing the visitors' penalty area for the vast majority of the game but had not penetrated.
A couple of minutes later the Ivorian slid in manfully at the near post as Rooney looked to convert another low cross from the right by Ronaldo.
Nine minutes before the break, Arsenal should have gone ahead. Anderson fouled Fabregas on the right and the Spaniard called over William Gallas for a word before he took the free-kick. Fabregas obviously said: "Attack the near post and I'll put the ball on your head" because that is precisely what happened. Gallas made firm, downward contact but the diving Edwin van Sar saved with his legs.
It was the clearest chance from either side in this tight, tense affair and, perhaps as a result, both seemed to have settled for a draw at half-time.
But that's when Manchester United took the lead.
Arsenal were sleeping on their left flank and Ronaldo exploited the space to send over another low cross to the near post. Once again Rooney was on the prowl. This time his touch deflected off the sliding Gallas and wrong-footed Almunia. Referee Howard Webb waved away Arsenal's suggestion that there had been a foul on Hleb in the build-up
It was soft, soft goal with which to split the sides when the whistle blew shortly afterwards.
But if Arsenal had been dozy for the first goal in the game then Manchester United were sleepwalking for the equaliser three minutes after the restart.
Eboue clipped a lofted pass over the visitors defence and Van der Sar rushed out to smother Adebayor's goalbound shot. The ball bounced out towards the byline and the Manchester United defence stood static expecting it to go out of play.
However Sagna had not given up. He hooked a leg around the covering defender to slide the ball to an unmarked Fabregas eight yards out. The Spaniard gleefully slotted home his 11th goal of the season.
The dynamic of the game changed immediately. The cagey nature of the first half had now been cast aside. This was now a heavyweight toe-to-toe slugfest.
Fabregas fired in a couple of efforts and there were calls for a penalty when Owen Hargreaves appeared to handle.
Just after the hour, Giggs picked out the unmarked Rooney who steered his header wastefully wide. Seconds later Hleb weaved himself some space on the edge of the visitors' area but hammered his effort high over the bar.
The pace of the game was unrelenting. Evra darted into the area and drew Almunia to the near post so Clichy cleared desperately when his cut-back trickled free across the face of goal. Then Rosicky tried to bend a long-range effort into the top corner.
With 16 minutes left, Theo Walcott replaced Eboue. Almost immediately the 18-year-old nearly hoisted a high, hanging effort over the backtracking Van der Sar.
However the visitors still scented victory themselves. Rooney had gone close on a couple of occasion and Evra was driving forward at every opportunity.
With eight minutes remaining, the left back created the second for Manchester United. Substitute Louis Saha spotted his galloping run down the left-hand channel. Almunia rushed out but Evra pulled the ball back to Ronaldo who slammed into the empty net.
Three minutes later, Evra miscued a low cross against his own bar as Arsenal pushed for the equaliser.
But the visitors now had the game where they wanted it. Eduardo slammed a decent effort wide as Arsenal's search for the equaliser looked to be fruitless.
And then Gallas volleyed home after a scramble.
If there were question marks over Arsenal's youngsters ahead of these last two games - Liverpool away and Manchester United at home - they have been emphatically answered in the positive.
And their title credentials were there for all to see today.
- Eboue 75
- Gallas Goal!
- Hleb 79
- Fabregas Goal! Yellow Card
- Rosicky 79
- Silva 79
- Walcott 75
- Eduardo 79
- Van der Sar
- Brown 71
- Evra Yellow Card
- Hargreaves Yellow Card
- Anderson 77
- Ronaldo Goal!
- Tevez 77
- O'Shea 71
- Carrick 77
- Saha 77