By Declan Taylor
Manchester United are Champions again but a valiant display by the Gunners ensured that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side did not clinch their 11th Premier League title in the desired fashion.
After their disappointing elimination from Europe at the hands of the Red Devils less than two weeks ago, Arsenal travelled to the North-West knowing a victory would poop Man United’s title party; and they went mighty close.
Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas both tested Edwin van der Sar in the closing stages but they found the Dutch keeper in inspired form.
Cristiano Ronaldo peppered Lukasz Fabianski with trademark free-kicks throughout the clash and Ji-Sung Park had a second-half strike chalked off for offside. But after conceding seven goals in their last two outings Arsenal’s defence held firm - thanks in no small part to a masterful performance at centre-half from Alex Song.
The point was enough for the champions but Arsenal can be proud of their display.
Arsène Wenger made two personnel changes to the side comprehensively beaten by Chelsea last weekend. Song, who started against the Blues in midfield, replaced Mikael Silvestre in defence with Denilson returning to plug the gap in the engine room.
With William Gallas (knee) out for the season, and Gael Clichy (back) and Manuel Almunia (ankle) still struggling, Kieran Gibbs and Fabianski retained their places in Arsenal’s youthful backline.
Further forward, Andrey Arshavin, fit again after flu, came in for Theo Walcott just off lone frontman Van Persie. Samir Nasri, scorer of the match-winning brace against United in November, completed the three-pronged attack. Emmanuel Adebayor missed out with a groin injury.
This match ended Old Trafford’s participation in a potential treble-winning season for Ferguson’s side. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere was electric inside the famous old ground before kick-off.
In his pre-match programme notes, the Scottish supremo had declared that this sort of occasion ‘brings out the best’ in the Gunners. And Arsenal certainly started as such.
After clearing crosses from Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher inside the first minute, Wenger’s men began to find their feet. Fabregas drilled a long-range strike two yards over before Diaby saw an effort from a similar distance blocked inside the first five minutes.
Then Arshavin began to flex his muscles. First the little Russian picked out Van Persie at the back post only for the striker to miss time his header. Then, after wriggling through three United challenges on the edge of the box, the former Zenit man was foiled at the vital moment.
In the 18th minute, the hosts went within a foot of taking the lead through Wayne Rooney. The England striker crept up on the blind-side of Bacary Sagna to meet Michael Carrick’s sublime diagonal delivery. To the surprise of the crowd, the downward header flashed the wrong side of Fabianski’s post.
Giggs was next to try his luck but the veteran’s direct free-kick from the corner of the area swirled well over the crossbar.
Despite the period of defensive consternation, Arsenal continued to threaten.
Arshavin and Nasri tried their luck either side of the half-hour but neither effort troubled Van der Sar. Then, when Van Persie’s header five minutes before the break finally reached the keeper, it was easily claimed.
The visitors continued to look the more likely scorers as the interval approached. Nemanja Vidic was forced to nod Van Persie’s delicious free-kick away from beneath his crossbar before Nasri saw a vicious 18-yard effort charged down.
Then just as the first signs of restlessness began to creep in among the home supporters, Ronaldo fired a sizzling up-and-over free-kick just wide in stoppage time.
A deluge of rain after the break ensured a scrappy start to the second half. That said, Ronaldo was at it again from a 35-yard set-piece. This time Song blocked the drive with his head.
Then the Portuguese really should have done better from slightly closer a minute before the hour.
Fabianski challenged at Carlos Tevez’s feet on the edge of the box and when Rooney could not latch on to the loose ball, Ronaldo ballooned the follow-up high and wide.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity, Wenger replaced both flying wingers 20 minutes from time. Arshavin made way for Walcott while Nicklas Bendtner, the catalyst for a fleeting fightback against Chelsea, replaced Nasri.
Substitute Park did find the net in the 72nd minute but Ronaldo had strayed offside in the build up. Man United had no complaints.
Six minutes before full time Fabregas almost single-handedly cancelled the celebrations but his angled drive from just inside the area was clawed onto the post by Van der Sar.
Van Persie also stung his countryman’s hands before full-time but Ferguson’s side held on for their point.
After the whistle, the Champions received their prize on the Old Trafford turf.
For Wenger’s youthful side, there could be no better motivation for next season’s title tilt.
- Song Yellow Card
- Gibbs 77
- Arshavin 69 Yellow Card
- Fabregas Yellow Card
- Nasri 70 Yellow Card
- Persie Yellow Card
- Bendtner 70
- Walcott 69
- Eboue 77
- Rooney 90
- Tevez 67
- Park 67
- Anderson 90