By Richard Clarke
Arsenal suffered a major blow to their title hopes by losing 3-1 to Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Arsène Wenger's side were undone in the first half when Manuel Almunia touched home a cross from Nani then Wayne Rooney grabbed another on the break eight minutes from half-time.
Any chance of a revival seemed to be extinguished when Ji-Sung Park sprinted clear and slotted home in the 52nd minute.
Thomas Vermaelen's strike hinted at some sort of comeback with 10 minutes remaining however Arsenal could muster no more.
This defeat leaves Wenger's men five points adrift of leaders Chelsea and four behind their conquerors this afternoon. With over a third of the season to go that gap is still very catchable however Arsenal have only taken one point from the opening two fixtures in their ‘awesome foursome' and that is a concern.
Still Manchester United did not win the title last year because they bested the Big Four. Maybe Arsenal can do the same thing.
A win at Chelsea next Sunday will do much to repair the damage to Wenger's side this afternoon. Right now it may seem fanciful but it is no more than they got last season.
Defeat, however, may leave an unbridgeable divide between Arsenal and the top two.
The pre-match team-sheet was a matter of major concern for the home supporters. At Villa on Wednesday, Thomas Vermaelen had hobbled off in the first half. In his post-match press conference that night, Wenger had said, best case, it could be nothing to worry about but, worst case, it was a broken leg. It turned out to be the former but his involvement in this game was still a massive doubt. In the end he played and his potential deputy, Sol Campbell, did not make the bench.
There was also a question mark over Alex Song. The midfielder was not injured. The issue was fatigue after the rigours of the Africa Cup of Nations. He too started while Emmanuel Eboue, who had been on duty with the Ivory Coast at the same tournament, was named as a substitute. Aaron Ramsey dropped to the bench to accommodate Song. Samir Nasri, the two-goal hero in this fixture last season, replaced the injured Eduardo.
Of course, Arsenal v Manchester United is not capable of being a mundane affair. Games between the two sides had maybe lost some meaning in title terms over recent years however the importance of this one was undisputable. Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea had all led the Premier League in the past 10 days. This was a proper three-horse race and Wenger's men would be facing the other two in the next eight days.
The pre-match tension around Emirates Stadium suggested that everyone knew it was time to deliver.
Arsenal were the first to show. In the third minute, Wes Brown nodded the ball into the path of the scampering Arshavin on the left. He teased the Manchester United defence before curling a shot beyond the far post.
However the visitors already seemed to have an ominous quality about them today and they would create a couple of dangerous opportunities down the right in the minutes that followed.
In the eighth minute, Darren Fletcher raced forward on the overlap. His low cross went through Vermaelen and was inadvertently cleared by Wayne Rooney with William Gallas in close attendance.
A minute later they would create another chance in an identical position. After escaping Clichy, Nani found himself in acres of space on the right. He had time to look up before cutting the ball back. Once again it was played at pace across the face of goal. Only the intervention of Song stopped Michael Carrick slotting home at the far post.
Arsenal had yet to settle. But just before the quarter-hour, Arshavin was on the end of another lightning attack down the left. Again he cut inside Brown and went for curler towards the far post. It was inches wide.
The Russian was back in the central attacking role and appeared to be relishing it. He was certainly heavily involved. Midway through the half, Fabregas strode through the midfield, shrugged off Paul Scholes and fed Arshavin. Once again he fooled his marker only this time he miscued his effort horribly.
You thought Arsenal were gradually working their way into the game. But, in fact, the visitors would impose themselves once more.
Only a wonderful interception from Gallas prevented Paul Scholes going clear inside the area then Ji-Sung Park's cross was deflected into the path of Nani on the right of the area but the Portuguese midfielder drove wide.
The 23-year-old was having an eye-catching game and it was no surprise that he was behind the opening goal. He flicked the ball between Clichy and Nasri on the right-hand touchline then danced past Denilson to reach the byline once more. You can only assume that Nani was trying to reach a couple of players at the far post when he clipped the ball high over Almunia. The keeper tried to tip it over but only succeeded in diverting the ball into his own net.
The goal had been coming but Arsenal were still stung. Fabregas saw his drive diverted by a stray leg in a crowded area then Arshavin set up Gallas but his path was blocked. Manchester United pounced on the ball and spread it quickly to Nani on the right. He found Rooney scampering through the midfield and the England striker swept home his 20th Premier League goal of the campaign. Arsenal had been caught by the classic breakaway goal they'd put the patent on in the Wenger era.
The sliding Arshavin rifled a shot past the post shortly afterwards however, five minutes from the break Manchester United should have added a third. Rooney cut the ball back from the left-hand byline and Scholes helped it on to the unmarked Nani just inside the area. His drive was deflected past the far post by Vermaelen.
Song bundled through in injury time and drove a shot past the post. At the break, Arsenal needed an injection of composure, guile and steel.
But there would be no panacea.
In fact, seven minutes after the restart, Park made the home side feel even more sickly. Fletcher lofted the ball over the high line the Arsenal defence were holding and the Korean scampered through. Rooney was racing to join the attack and that drew Clichy's attention. The Frenchman was left covering both players and so Park toyed with the idea of a pass. However in the end the Manchester United midfielder went for it alone and fired low into the bottom left-hand corner.
It seemed to be the killer goal.
Arsenal did what they could to respond. Fabregas fired inches over and Song stretched Edwin van der Sar. The Cameroon international also cracked an effort just wide.
They were all worthy efforts but were all from distance. You sensed that, with a 3-0 goal advantage, Manchester United were happy to let Arsenal try their luck from that range.
On the hour, Wenger made an attacking substitution - Theo Walcott for Denilson. Ten minutes later, he threw on Bendtner and Eboue for Rosicky and Nasri.
The pattern was now set for the remainder of the game. Arsenal would have ample possession and press forward, Manchester United would soak up everything and take what they could on the break.
Sixteen minutes from they time, that tactic nearly saw them grab a fourth. Rooney went marauding across the halfway line and then sprinted clear as Eboue stumbled. Fortunately for Arsenal he dragged his shot wide.
The game seemed to be limping to a conclusion when Arsenal scored. With 11 minutes left, Fabregas fed a quick free-kick to Nasri on the left. His high, hanging cross was nodded out by Jonny Evans to Vermaelen just outside the area and the Belgian hooked home a shot via the leg of the Irishman.
Suddenly we had a game again. Fabregas floated over a corner and Walcott saw his header booted away by Evans.
Gallas should have set-up a grandstand finish but, in the dying seconds of normal time, he sent a backward header wide when he only had Van der Sar to beat.
However before that, Almunia's weak clearance nearly handed Nani the goal he deserved then, deep into injury time, Rooney slid a shot inches past the far post.
Emirates Stadium was understandably muted a full time, except for a pocket of travelling fans in the away end.
They had much to celebrate. Meanwhile Arsenal must simply steel themselves for next Sunday.
- Vermaelen Goal!
- Sagna 72
- Denilson 61
- Rosicky 72
- Song Yellow Card
- Eboue 72
- Walcott 61
- Bendtner 72
- Park 87 Goal!
- Scholes 71
- Nani 89
- Rooney Goal!
- Giggs 71
- Valencia 87
- Berbatov 89