By Richard Clarke
Arsenal's title bid is all but over.
Arsène Wenger's side went down 2-1 to Manchester United after a pulsating, dramatic affair at Old Trafford on Sunday.
As in their Champions League defeat to Liverpool last Tuesday, the visitors took the lead, played some fine football and were left to rue their luck. Arsenal were the superior side in the first half but went ahead three minutes after the break when Emmanuel Adebayor bundled home from Robin van Persie's cross. They might have doubled their lead soon afterwards when Rio Ferdinand's miscued volley bounced back off his own keeper from point-blank range.
Redemption for the home side was immediate when William Gallas handled and Cristiano Ronaldo scored a twice-taken penalty. Seventeen minutes from time, Owen Hargreaves struck the winner from a free-kick.
Arsenal can take heart from their response to the goal. They pinned the home side back in the area for the final few minutes and substitute Nicklas Bendtner hit the post. But, in the end, their efforts came to nothing.
Manchester United will march on, perhaps towards the title; Arsenal are now nine points behind and must build for next season.
However, on the evidence of today, the gap between the sides is being not reflected in the Premier League table.
Wenger knew victory was essential this afternoon and he made changes. Some enforced, some not. Some expected, some not. Manuel Almunia had injured his wrist on training on Friday so Jens Lehmann came in. Philippe Senderos was omitted from the squad and Alex Song replaced him at centre back. It was the Cameroon international's first Premier League start of the season. Mathieu Flamini had been injured at Anfield on Tuesday so, Gilberto, his substitute that night, started this afternoon.
Manchester United has been able to rest Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo for their Champions League fixture against Roma in midweek. Predictably, they were both back but, like Arsenal, the home side had a relatively inexperienced player at centre half in the form of Gerald Pique.
As they had at Liverpool in midweek, Arsenal made the brighter start. They created in the first chance after six minutes. Adebayor was dispossessed on the edge of the area but a woeful clearance by Wes Brown only found Fabregas on the corner of the area. The Spaniard fizzed an effort just over the bar.
In reply Ronaldo went close with a couple of free-kicks. But Arsenal were still the superior side. After 12 minutes, Eboue streaked down the right and his cut back was stabbed goalwards by Adebayor. Ferdinand deflected the ball behind as Old Trafford breathed a sigh of relief. A couple of corners later Gilberto hooked a shot towards goal. It beat Van der Sar but was blocked a few yards from goal.
Manchester United went straight up the other end and Ji-Sung Park slid a header wide of the far post. However the pressure was still on the home side, Adebayor exchanged passes with Hleb but his shot was weak.
In the 19th minute, Rooney, who had been quiet until now, darted between Toure and Song before firing wide.
Finally, Manchester United were starting to settle. And though Ferguson's side would create fewer chances before the break, they would be clearer ones.
Midway through the half, Ronaldo skipped past Song on the left-hand byline. Rooney met his low cross at the near post but Lehmann's foot deflected the ball behind for a corner.
Adebayor and Gilberto both blazed over at the end of decent passing moves. But there was a sense that Arsenal had to score while they were on top. They should have done that just past the half-hour when Hleb beat a couple of defenders and fed Adebayor inside the area.
Again the Togolese striker's contact was tame when perhaps he should have scored.
Arsenal were nearly made to pay in the 36th minute. Song slipped and Rooney went clear, albeit pursued by three visiting defenders. The England striker raced into the area and fired low towards the corner but Lehmann got an expert touch to divert the ball narrowly wide.
It preserved parity at the break and that was the least Arsenal deserved on the basis of the first half. Ordinarily, the visitors would have been delighted but, this afternoon, they needed nothing less than victory.
That was very much on the cards three minutes after the restart. Van Persie took a short free-kick to Hleb and raced round towards the left-hand byline. Fabregas' shot was blocked and the ball eventually found its way to the Dutchman. His cross was whipped into the near post where Adebayor emerged between Michael Carrick and Van der Sar to scuff the ball home from a couple of yards out. It was the breakthrough Arsenal needed.
And, within seconds, it was nearly 2-0. Adebayor roared down the right and crossed into area where Ferdinand, under pressure from Gilberto, stabbed a fierce volley towards his own goal. It hit the legs of the startled Van der Sar and cannoned away to safety.
In a week during which Arsenal had bemoaned their luck that was perhaps the most obvious example.
Especially,as the hosts were level within a minute. Gallas handled in the area and Ronaldo stepped up to take the spot-kick. The Portuguese scored low to Lehmann's right but was asked to repeat the trick after referee Howard Webb saw encroachment into the area. Unfortunately for Arsenal, he did.
By the midway point of the half, both managers had made changes. Theo Walcott replaced Eboue while Ferguson brought on Anderson and Carlos Tevez. The Argentine fired inches wide with 25 minutes to go but Walcott set up Fabergas to fire over then Clichy's cross deflected off Brown and hit the base of van der Sar's near post. Once again fortune had not favoured the visitors.
It was becoming a fast, open affair and you could sense more goals. Unfortunately the next one was scored by the hosts. In the 73rd minute Gilberto was adjudged to have fouled Patrice Evra just outside the Arsenal area. Hargreaves stepped up to curl an effort over the wall and into the far corner with Lehmann left standing.
Manchester United now had what they wanted and they did not show much adventure in the final minutes. Arsenal were chasing the game.
Substitute Nicklas Bendtner saw a header saved by Van der Sar and Gilberto nodded over from range. The Dane then had another header bounce back off the post. The visitors had mounted a superb response.
However, at full time, once again it had not been reflected in the scoreline.
* Well done to the visiting Arsenal fans, who sang their hearts out for a full 15 minutes after the final whistle as the stadium emptied.
- Lehmann Yellow Card
- Gallas Yellow Card
- Toure 85
- Eboue 61
- Hleb Yellow Card
- Adebayor Goal! Yellow Card
- Persie 76 Yellow Card
- Hoyte 85 Yellow Card
- Walcott 61
- Bendtner 76
- Brown Yellow Card
- Carrick Yellow Card
- Scholes 55
- Hargreaves 90 Goal!
- Park 55
- Ronaldo Goal!
- Anderson 55
- Giggs 90
- Tevez 55